Yes, It’s Okay to Cover a Cold Sore With Makeup
The experts are here to share the best ways to treat—and hide—your cold sore.
December 19, 2022
So you’re here to learn how to hide a cold sore. And just in time: You can usually sense a cold sore before you see it. Tingling, burning, or itching sensations precede the little buggers, which are actually small, painful blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Unlike other forms of HSV, cold sores cluster around the mouth, meaning their arrival could be obvious to anyone who sees you. Because of that, when you feel an outbreak coming on, you might be inclined to cancel your events for the next few days. We get it: It’s hard to feel cute when you’re anxious about your skin.
They’re not a total plan killer, though! For one, you’re not alone in this. According to Johns Hopkins, 50% to 80% of adults have oral herpes. So you don’t have to go into self-imposed isolation here. For many people, cold sores are just a fact of life and obscuring them is just one more thing on the list of pre-event beauty prep.
But before we tell you how to cover up a cold sore, here’s what you need to know.
“Cold sores are also known as herpes labialis,” says Adebola Dele-Michael, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Radiant Skin Dermatology & Laser in New York City. “They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus and can be very contagious, especially during an outbreak.”
Given that they’re so contagious, experts including the doctors at Mayo Clinic say you should avoid sharing lip balm, utensils, or anything else that comes into contact with your face. And yes, also kissing. Dr. Dele-Michael also advises using topical prescription medication at the first sign of an impending outbreak. Prescription medications will help relieve the symptoms and should be applied as soon as you feel burning or itching, if possible. “In some cases, one might even be prescribed a daily suppressive dose to prevent a cold sore outbreak altogether,” she adds.
There is an over-the-counter solution too. Docosanol, often sold as Abreva, is a cold sore cream you can apply and pick up right now at your local pharmacy.
Your first cold sore outbreak is likely to be your worst one, per Johns Hopkins, and you may never have another one after that, but prepare for pain, swelling, and redness around the area. Also know that you might get a fever or sore throat. The blisters will probably pop at some point, so you can expect a little oozing, then scabbing. All told, this could last about five to six days.
Whether you’re in the early stages or the oozing or scabbing portion of your journey will determine how to cover a cold sore with makeup.
How to hide a cold sore
Yes, you can use makeup to cover the sore, confirms Dr. Dele-Michael. But first, you need to treat them. According to Jessica Herrin, CEO and founder of Ever Skincare, covering a cold sore too soon may delay healing and make it even more visible—which is what you don’t want. So before you cover the cluster of blisters (or, in later stages, the scabs), you’ll want to treat the area to the best of your ability, whether that means using a prescription topical cream or a cold, wet compress to decrease swelling.
Herrin also advises moisturizing. “You need to let a cold sore dry out so it stops oozing, but that does not mean you should skip moisturizing the area,” she says. She advises using cream or a lip treatment to minimize splitting and prevent bleeding, which helps with healing in later stages.
And make sure your cold store isn’t still oozing before applying makeup. Says celebrity makeup artist Ashley Stewart, “I would recommend treating it before trying to cover it. You want to make sure it is dried out, then you can add a little bit of foundation or concealer to mute it out, followed by using a satin or gloss lip color on top. The worst thing you can do is wear a matte finish lip color over a cold sore.”
Stewart’s tip about gloss is key because matte lipsticks are drying and can cake around the blisters or scabs. A gloss or satin-finish lip color, however, can reflect light and look smoother. Check out this list of lip glosses Glamour editors swear by for some inspiration for cold sore makeup.
A blister can be similar to a pimple, so follow the same go-to camouflaging steps as you do when you have a traditional breakout. Keep some blotting papers with you while you’re out, especially if you’re in the oozing stage. Soaking up that wetness will keep the cold sore from looking too distracting. Just make sure you have a little concealer handy to touch up the area after you remove the gunk.
When selecting a concealer, Herrin suggests looking for a concentrated formula that is thicker and creamier than the more standard liquid versions. Layer the concealer with a blender, dabbing just a tiny amount on the cold sore, and then letting it set. Add thin layers until it’s covered. A salmon-toned concealer can offset the redness, Herrin adds, so she suggests starting with that before moving on to a concealer that matches your skin tone. Here are some great dry skin makeup options that won’t flake or cake. Once you have your concealer on, set with a clean, non-comedogenic dusting powder.
Be mindful about what tools you use. “You can apply makeup to cover the cold sore, but be careful not to use your favorite brush,” Dr. Dele-Michael says. “Use a disposable brush or cotton-tipped applicator. You don’t want viruses and microbes from the cold sore contaminating your makeup.”
Stewart also suggests using a disposable lip brush. And again, don’t share your makeup brushes—especially during an outbreak. Cold sores are contagious!
Here’s what not to do.
You might think the best way to prepare your skin for makeup application is to make it as smooth as possible. While exfoliation is great under normal circumstances, the experts are clear: Don’t mess with a cold sore.
“I don’t recommend picking or peeling a cold sore,” says Stewart. “This can cause bleeding and scarring. Let it heal naturally, using a cold sore treatment to help.”
The only thing worse than a cold sore is a permanent scar where a cold sore once was. Ideally, you want to be on cover-up duty for only five or so days. Resist the urge to pick at the blisters so you don’t make this a forever thing.
Dr. Dele-Michael also adds to not look for cold sore covers like bandages unless your doctor advises it. Instead, she recommends keeping the area dry and clean. Gently wash off your makeup after a night out, and then fully dry your face. Once the sore pops and begins to scab, you can use some lip balm or petroleum jelly to stop it from flaking too much, though that won’t do much for healing.
And finally, don’t stress about this too much! Stress can actually trigger cold sores in some cases, so it’s best not to keep yourself in an anxiety loop. Cold sores are common—it’s why we’re doing this guide, after all—so even if your cover-up game isn’t A-1, no one is going to judge you. They might not even notice. You look great, so get out there and have fun (even if your lips are burning).
“Smile and make a joke of it,” says Herrin. “Others are not as horrified by your cold sore as you are.”
Lindsey Ellefson is a New York City–based writer and reporter.