Lip cancer occurs on the skin of the lips. Lip cancer can occur anywhere along the upper or lower lip, but is most common on the lower lip. Lip cancer is considered a type of mouth (oral) cancer.
Most lip cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which means they begin in the thin, flat cells in the middle and outer layers of the skin called squamous cells.
Lip cancer risk factors include excessive sun exposure and tobacco use. You may reduce your risk of lip cancer by protecting your face from the sun with a hat or sunblock, and by quitting smoking.
Treatment for lip cancer usually involves surgery to remove the cancer. For small lip cancers, surgery may be a minor procedure with minimal impact on your appearance.
For larger lip cancers, more extensive surgery may be necessary. Careful planning and reconstruction can preserve your ability to eat and speak normally, and also achieve a satisfactory appearance after surgery.
Signs and symptoms of lip cancer include:
- A flat or slightly raised whitish discoloration of the lip
- A sore on your lip that won't heal
- Tingling, pain or numbness of the lips or the skin around the mouth
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any persistent signs or symptoms that worry you.
It's not clear what causes lip cancer.
In general, cancer starts when cells develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell the cell what to do. The changes tell the cell to begin multiplying uncontrollably and to continue living when healthy cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can invade and destroy normal body tissue.
Factors that can increase your risk of lip cancer include:
- Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, among others
- Fair skin
- Excessive sun exposure to your lips
- A weakened immune system
To reduce your risk of lip cancer, you can:
- Stop using tobacco or don't start. If you use tobacco, stop. If you don't use tobacco, don't start. Using tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, exposes the cells in your lips to dangerous cancer-causing chemicals.
- Avoid the sun during the middle of the day. For many people in North America, the sun's rays are strongest between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Schedule outdoor activities for other times of the day, even during winter or when the sky is cloudy.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even on cloudy days. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or perspiring.
- Avoid tanning beds. Tanning beds emit UV rays and can increase your risk of lip cancer.
Lip cancer care at Mayo Clinic
Dec. 10, 2019
- AskMayoExpert. Oral cavity carcinoma, stages I to IV: Diagnosis to first treatment (adult). Mayo Clinic; 2017.
- Head and neck cancers. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/default.aspx. Accessed June 14, 2019.
- Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Cancer of the head and neck. In: Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Elsevier; 2020. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 14, 2019.
- Warner KJ. Allscripts EPSi. Mayo Clinic. July 10, 2019.
- Flint PW, et al. Malignant neoplasms of the oral cavity. In: Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Saunders Elsevier; 2015. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 14, 2019.
- Sunscreen: How to protect your skin from the sun. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/understanding-over-counter-medicines/sunscreen-how-help-protect-your-skin-sun. Accessed Sept 15, 2019.