Your lips are dry, so you apply a little something soothing from a tube or a tiny jar or one of those weird golf ball things. Aah, relief. But as soon as it wears off, you need more. The cycle repeats all throughout the colder months. Are you practicing responsible skin care, or have you become addicted?
Illustration by Nick Criscuolo.
Let’s get specific about the word addiction for a minute. Addiction involves the reward pathways in the brain, typically as they respond to a chemical — the “substance” in substance abuse. A true addiction will result in withdrawal symptoms, and is a problem if it’s interfering with your life and relationships, or if you seek the substance despite harmful effects on your health.
Even the most dedicated lip balm users probably don’t have this type of addiction. While there are people who apply it dozens or hundreds of times a day, psychotherapist Daniel Mattila told Refinery29 that they are likely experiencing, not a drug addiction, but something like obsessive-compulsive disorder. For these people, “[applying lip balm is] a ritual and a self-soothing mechanism, just like hand-washing.”
But how much is too much? Those of us with a more manageable lip balm habit may still carry a tube every day in the winter. If you’re always applying lip balm, and always experiencing chapped lips, could the balm be partially causing the problem? That would be awfully convenient for the people who make money selling the stuff.
Rumours about lip balms have probably been flying for as long as lip balms have been popular. Carmex, for example, has been accused of adding strong acids or ground glass to damage the lips and leave you wanting more. There’s no evidence that the company is doing anything this unethical, although there is a grain of truth to the idea that lip balms may contain irritants. But first, let’s talk about how lip balms are supposed to work.
How Lip Balms Work
Lip balms contain oils and moisturizers that aim to soothe your dry skin. Skin cells are born at the lower layers of the epidermis, and migrate upwards while they shrink and flatten. The flattened, nearly empty cells at the surface make a great barrier against moisture, especially since they are glued to each other at their edges. This keeps water from escaping your skin, and other substances from finding their way in.
When skin is dry, skin cell production speeds up. This means that the cells reaching the surface aren’t fully matured, and the barrier is imperfect: dry skin can’t protect itself as well, and is even more susceptible to further drying. (There’s a good explanation of this process in this online dermatology textbook.) If you can stop the drying with some kind of artificial barrier — like a lip balm — that can give the skin a chance to heal itself.
Lip skin is especially susceptible to this process because it contains few to none of the sweat glands and oil glands that keep the rest of your skin soft and supple. When your lips dry out, there aren’t many ways to restore that protective barrier besides applying a balm. Waiting for the lips to heal themselves may not work if the same factors that caused them to dry out are still present. For chapped lips in autumn and winter, that usually means cold, dry air — not something that’s easy to escape.
So yes: Moisturizing the skin on your lips really does keep them supple, like lip balms promise. If your lips are chapped and you use a balm for a few days, they should recover. If they don’t, it’s likely due to other factors. While it’s true that moisturizers can make your body’s skin temporarily make less of its own oils, that phenomenon can’t really happen on your lips because, remember, they don’t make much of their own oil to begin with.
Why You Need to Keep Re-Applying
If your lips don’t feel better after a few days, there are a few other things that could be going on.
Lip balm sometimes (not always) contains substances called counter-irritants. Some people find them soothing, some irritating. In truth, they’re both.
Here’s how it works. If you smack your elbow on a table, then rub the sore spot briskly with your other hand, you’re using the principle of pain gating. There are only so many nerve fibres connecting your elbow to your brain, and by adding a new sensation — the rubbing — you’re reducing the amount of pain that can get through. The same principle is behind the tingly ingredients in Tiger Balm or Biofreeze: they use up nervous system bandwidth on mild cooling or warming sensations, so that you don’t feel muscle soreness as strongly.
Personally, I hate these products; they just add annoyance without really removing pain. But everybody is wired a little differently. The same folks who swear by Biofreeze tend to find medicated lip balms like Carmex to be “soothing.”
Menthol, phenol, and camphor are typical counter-irritants. Carmex contains all three. “Natural” lip balms often contain peppermint oil for the same purpose. These ingredients can have a side effect of causing mild dryness or inflammation.
If you apply a balm for that soothing tingly feeling, and end up with irritated lips, your next move might be to re-apply. For most people this never gets beyond a very mild irritation, but if you think this might be happening to you, try switching brands to something that doesn’t tingle or sting at all.
Counter-irritants aren’t the only potential problem, but they are a big one. Other possibilities include:
- the balm contains something you’re allergic to, like oils or fragrances. If your lips are irritated and you think your balm may be to blame, try switching to a simpler product — even plain old vaseline — and see if the issue resolves.
- the balm contains alpha-hydroxy acids or salicylic acid, both of which are chemical exfoliants. This means they make the outer layers of skin fall off — great for making healthy skin smoother, but the opposite of what you want for damaged skin.
- your lips are being exposed to damaging factors from the environment, like dry air, sunlight, or frequent lip-licking, that a lip balm can only fix on a short-term basis.
It’s likely to be either counter-irritants or one of these other factors that causes you to keep applying the balm, rather than the moisturizing effect of the balm itself.
What to Look For in a Lip Balm
If your current lip balm isn’t working for you, it may be time to try a new one — with a bit of a closer eye on the ingredients. Lip balms’ main ingredients fall into a few categories:
- Occlusive ingredients are greasy or sometimes waxy, and form a barrier on top of the skin to keep moisture from escaping. Petroleum jelly is a classic example; many oils and waxes also fall into this category.
- Emollients fill in the gaps between skin cells to make skin feel smooth instead of rough. These include some oils, alcohols, and esters. (You may have heard advice to avoid alcohols in lip balm, but they’re not all created equal: octyl dodecanol, hexyl dodecanol, and oleyl alcohol make great emollients and aren’t drying.)
- Humectants absorb water, helping to pull moisture from the deeper layers of skin into the epidermis. Honey, glycerol, and urea are all effective humectants. (Yes, urea is found in urine, but it’s also present in our sweat to help moisturize our skin. Urea containing lotions are some of the best moisturizers out there.)
If your lips aren’t chapped yet, a balm with occlusive ingredients can help keep them healthy by preventing them from drying out. If they’re already dry, something with all three types of ingredients is probably a good idea.
Lip balm and lotion formulation is part art and part science. One study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that some oils unexpectedly made the skin lose, rather than retain, moisture. “The ingredients which influence the skin barrier function need to be identified,” the researchers concluded. In the meantime, some trial-and-error is necessary.
One of my favourites is Burt’s Bees Honey lip balm. It goes on thick and stays in place; if the honey is present in any substantial amount — hard to say — it could act as a humectant. It also smells amazing.
Choosing a lip balm is a personal thing; what one person finds soothing another may find drying. But know that if your salve of choice feels like it’s making your lips more dry rather than less, you don’t have to give up your chapstick habit — a different formulation may be all you need.