By Karol E. Kristborg
When the Kylie Jenner lip challenge grabbed a brief stranglehold on social media feeds a few months ago, I, like many people, could not get my head around why anyone would want lips so dramatically different from what they naturally had. I’m all for the people’s right to do whatever body modification they choose, but the idea of seeing myself with a pneumatically pumped pout struck my heart like a Kafkaesque nightmare — where I wake up not an insect but a duck.
The fact is, I never had big lips. And I’ve never felt the lack of them. Yet over the passing years, my very average size lips have subtly deflated, and in side-by-side photos, they’re one of the most notable signs of aging in my face. While I’ve never desired someone else’s lips, I have pined for my own: those slightly fuller things I knew back in the mid aughts.
So with that goal in mind — and following a night of literal nightmares about all the ways the treatment could go wrong — I headed to the office of Robert Anolik, M.D., a N.Y.C.-based dermatologist known for his natural take on fillers, to test out Volbella, the newest injectable to receive the FDA’s stamp of approval specifically for lips.
What is Volbella?
A hyaluronic-acid-based filler, Volbella harnesses a sugar that our bodies naturally produce and plumps tissues by injecting it beneath the skin’s surface. Many dermatologists consider hyaluronic-acid (HA) fillers among the safest types of injectables, primarily because there’s very little chance of an allergic reaction, and — importantly — if you do end up the victim of an overenthusiastic injector, the filler has an antidote, hyaluronidase, which can reverse the plumping over the course of a couple days.
As for what sets Volbella apart from other HAs in the Juvederm family and from similar products, like Restylane, it all comes down to what Dr. Anolik terms its “low cohesivity,” which simply means that it’s very soft. “Because of this, we can place it in what we call the perioral lines — those vertical lip lines — so superficially that you can fill them in without leaving lumps and bumps. It just blends into the surface,” he says. It can also plump the lip itself with a subtlety that’s more difficult to achieve with some other fillers. “It creates arguably a little more natural fullness to the lip. We can shape it like we want — and it’s expected to stay that way,” lasting for up to a year, according to the FDA.
A half-hour before the injections, a nurse circles my mouth in a frothy beard of numbing foam. Lips fully numbed and the cream swabbed away, Dr. Anolik, who’s already visually mapped the ideal spots for my filler, begins injecting microdroplets through Volbella’s hot-pink syringe, first threading the filler along my upper lip line before dipping down into the region right below the cupid’s bow. He follows by plumping up just the outer corners of the lower lip. His final step: tracing a thin line into the two periorbital wrinkles that run perpendicular above my lips, those lines that are visible mostly when sipping through a straws or blowing kisses (neither of which I make a habit of doing).
Keep in mind that injections sites will vary somewhat, depending on where a patient has lost volume.
Total time being poked and prodded: 9 minutes. Pain level: Around 2.5, thanks in no small part to the topical numbing cream.
The next two weeks
Less than 45 minutes after I’d sat down in the dermatologist’s chair my lip makeover was complete. And the most remarkable thing about the transformation was how small a difference it made — yet how much impact that tiny shift had. Dr. Anolik artfully Benjamin Buttoned my lips back a decade in a way that would have been imperceptible to almost anyone but me. In fact, I would have been perfectly comfortable heading straight back to the office without worrying that anyone would notice a thing — though with any new procedure it’s always the safest bet take the rest of the afternoon off. And this I did, heading instead to an early dinner with a friend I’d seen just two days before, who now looked at me and noticed … exactly nothing. Even when I pointed it out, it she took two beats before exclaiming, “Ah, yes, I do see! I never would have known — it looks so good.” And this was precisely the reaction I wanted.
Over the next few days, my lips felt mildly sore if I pursed them. I really didn’t see any swelling, even on Day 1 — though most people will experience a small amount, which should subside within two weeks. Small lumps can form beneath the surface, but this is rare and they tend to dissipate within a month.
Now two weeks in, my upper lip stands a little taller. My bottom lip rests just the tiniest bit fuller. They’re my lips, but the ones I talked and ate with five or 10 years ago.
Like other fillers, Volbella isn’t cheap, averaging between $500 and $750 per syringe injected, depending on the region of the country. Patients who want to plump both the lip itself and fill perioral lines, like I did, will probably require two syringes. This will need to be repeated around the 12-month mark to maintain the effects.
Ultimately, the success of any kind of filler comes down to the doctor’s skill at injecting it, so for this reason don’t let anyone but a board-certified dermatologist near your lips with a syringe. And while Volbella is ideal for subtle fills, it can also be used to amp up lips to Kylie-worthy volume, so make sure your doctor shares your aesthetic. “If your dermatologist doesn’t appreciate the idea of a natural look, it’s clearly the wrong place,” cautions Dr. Anolik, who offers a skincare motto to live by: “I’d rather look older than artificial — but I don’t want to look either.” Luckily for us, in the right hands and with the right tools, it’s a philosophy that’s perfectly achievable.
All photos: Courtesy of the author