Are you the type of person that slathers on lip balm throughout the day, almost as a reflexive habit? The kind who only uses it occasionally, when your lips are cracked into oblivion and close to bleeding? Or the type who avoids it judiciously because you once heard it actually makes chapped lips worse? I am the third, which has led me here today.
Is it really true that applying chapstick and other lip balms can cause your lips to become so dependent on those emollients that they “stop moisturizing themselves,” hence starting a vicious cycle of perpetual dryness? The quick answer: Yes, kind of. But it depends. Let’s get into it.
Why lips are so susceptible to dryness
Lip skin is not robust. As board-certified dermatologist Mary L. Stevenson told NBC News Select, “skin on the lips is much thinner and more sensitive than the skin on your arms and legs because it’s meant to help your mouth absorb food.” Add this to the fact that lips have no oil glands to keep them moisturized and protected, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to chapping. While certain autoimmune disorders, medications, allergens, skin conditions like eczema, nutrient deficiencies, dehydration, and habits like excessive lip licking can cause chapped lips, the primary contributor is usually environmental factors such as cold temperatures, dry air, wind, and sun, all of which all stress the delicate skin on your lips.
What does lip balm do, actually?
Lip balm provides an artificial barrier that seals moisture into your lips temporarily, giving them a chance to heal while being protected from the elements further chapping them — again, temporarily. The problem is what happens when that hydration evaporates, and whats in your lip balm.
According to dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein, “[chapsticks] can lead to a vicious cycle of constantly needing to use them and swiping them on the lips, often followed by lip smacking, which perpetuates the cycle of chapping.”
Lip balm ingredients to avoid
Certain ingredients found in lip balms do, in fact, increase irritation or drying. According to Rapid City Medical Centre, menthol, phenol (phenyl), and camphor, “may provide an immediate cooling sensation but can irritate the skin. In some cases they even remove the outer layers of skin leaving your lips unprotected and susceptible to environmental hazards.” Additionally, lanolin, parabens, salicylic acid, eucalyptus, fragrances, and flavours such as cinnamon, citrus, and peppermint should be avoided, as they can irritate the skin and make it drier.
In case you’re wondering, name brand Chapstick’s ingredients include phenyl, lanolin, camphor, two different parabens, two colour dyes, and “parfum” (fragrance). That’s a whole bunch of no right there.
What ingredients should your lip balm have?
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends products containing castor seed oil, hemp seed oil, ceramides, shea butter, and petrolatum, among other ingredients. For very chapped lips, the AAD suggests using an ointment, such as white petroleum jelly, rather than waxes or oils, as ointment seals in water longer. As always, they recommended using sunscreen, too, advising you use an SPF30 (or higher) lip balm that fits the above requirements.
Dr. Leah Jacob, assistant professor at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, cautions against using shiny lip products while spending time outside, however, as the high gloss may intensify damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Alternatives to lip balm
If you’d like to avoid commercial balms altogether, there are some natural routes to lip care. Honey is a natural humectant, meaning it pulls moisture from deeper layers of the skin into the epidermis. It also has antibacterial properties and can help prevent infection if your lips crack. According to Dr. Konstantin Vasyukevich, MD, a facial plastic surgeon and skincare expert, “honey works as a mild exfoliator and can help remove dry, dead skin from the lips.” Gentle exfoliation with a sugar scrub can also be effective, though make sure to follow it up with a moisturizing treatment.
The AAD also also suggests using a humidifier in your home, drinking more water to hydrate from within, and stopping all biting, picking and licking of lips.