Heal Dry Chapped Lips
By Cynthia Bailey MD.
How to heal dry chapped lips sometimes seems impossible. That's because the 'chapping' may be due to something you are doing - like using a lip balm that you are 'addicted' to or something you are eating. Yep, it's true! Learn how to figure out if you lip chapping is something more.
Do you suffer from cracked, dry lips?
Chapped lips are painful, unsightly and can be hard to heal. What’s worse, some “healing” lip balms can exacerbate the situation and cause further dryness.
The key to healing dry lips is to understand the reason why they’re chapping.
Most common causes of dry chapped lips:The skin on your lips is uniquely fragile and requires special care. Once you understand the reason behind the problem, you can finally heal your dry lips for good! Chapped lips have four main causes:
- Environmental chapping from harsh weather and wind.
- Irritation from excessive lip licking.
- Harsh ingredients in skin care products such as anti-aging skin care products or acne products that migrate to the lips.
- Allergic reactions to foods, beverages, lip balms and dental products that come into contact with your lips.
Get my dermatologist-recommended information and tips for your dry chapped lips
If your dry, chapped lips won’t heal, here’s what to do:
How to heal dry chapped lips due to harsh weather
The two tried and true lip care products that I use in my practice are my Natural Lip Balm and Vanicream Lip Protectant SPF 30. Both are deeply hydrating and will soothe chapped lips. They both come in convenient tubes so that you can easily carry them with you and use them throughout the day. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
- The Natural Lip Balm is ideal for anytime use.
- When you are outdoors in the sun, use the Vanicream Lip SPF Protectant because you need to protect your delicate lip skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Unless you are constantly out in harsh weather (think fishermen and skiers), your lips should respond quickly once you are using the right lip balm. These two products are the best lip balms to care for your lips!
How to know if your dry chapped lips are due to irritation from your skin care products, lip balm or something else
Some skin care, lip balms and even dental products can irritate lips.
Common lip irritants
Common lip irritants include acne, anti-aging and exfoliating ingredients such as retinoids (for example, Retin A and retinol, glycolic acid salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide). These products may migrate to your lips as the product warms on your skin, causing unexpected irritation. Dental products can also contain irritants such as tartar control (pyrophosphates) in toothpastes.
Apply the Natural Lip Balm or VaniCream Lip Balm to your lips before using or applying these types of products. Try to keep these products away from your lips and use a wet washcloth to clear off any excess. During the day, apply the Natural Lip Balm or Vani Lip Protectant to help create a protective barrier so that drying product ingredients don’t migrate to your lip surface.
Lip licker's dermatitis is irritation on and around the lips that is a common consequence of excess lip licking
Lip licker's dermatitis is due to excessive lip licking that causes an eczematous cheilitis and perioral dermatitis. The lip skin to thicken, redden and become irritated. The redness will ultimately extend beyond the lips to create a clown-like look. It also causes increased saliva production, which leads to more lip licking.
How to heal chapped and dry lips if constant lip licking is causing your cracked lips:
Lip licking is a chicken and egg question; do you lick your lips because they are dry, or is your licking actually causing the dryness? If you lick your lips frequently, try keeping your lips constantly covered with the Natural Lip Balm or Vanicream Lip Protectant instead of licking your lips. You should see improvement within a month.
An allergic lip rash is called allergic cheilitis or contact eczematous cheilitis. Here are the most common causes.If your lips don’t heal with consistent use of a good lip balm, you could be allergic to a food or to your lip care products. I see a lot of patients whose chapped lips are due to an allergic reaction. Before they've seen me, they’ve tried numerous chapped lip remedies, all without improvement. The lip chapping that happens from an allergic reaction is called allergic cheilitis (cheilitis means an inflammation of the lip skin). The key is finding the allergen that causes your lips to dry and chap. In my practice, the most common causes of allergic lip chapping are:
Citrus: Even small amounts of citrus can have a huge impact on your lips. This includes the twist of lemon in your beverage, drinking orange juice, eating an orange etc. I’m allergic to citrus so I get to live out this rash every time I squeeze lemon in my water or use it generously on food. You can lessen the chapping by applying a fresh coat of my Natural Lip Balm before you eat or drink citrus, using a straw if you’re drinking the citrus and washing your lips soon after the exposure. This doesn’t entirely prevent the rash, but it helps a little.
- Mint: Mint is in many products including gum, breath mints, dental products etc. One of my patients developed chapped lips from regularly drinking mint tea.
- Cinnamon: Cinnamon products are less common but there is cinnamon in some dental products, teas and beverages. Another one of my patients developed dry lips from the cinnamon in Good Earth’s Original Sweet and Spicy herb tea, which is loaded with a delicious amount of cinnamon.
- Lip balms: Many ‘healing’ lip balms designed to treat chapped lips actually contain well-intended healing ingredients that are also allergens! The product I see the most problems with is Bert’s Bees Lip Balms, but there are many other products patients bring me that are loaded with allergens. The common allergens in lip care products include eucalyptus, mint, lanolin, non-mineral sunscreen ingredients, menthol, camphor and the fragrance and flavors in the lip products.
- Lipsticks: common allergens in lipstick including dyes, flavorings, preservatives, chemical sunscreens, ricinoleic acid, propyl gallates (commonly used to preserve the oils).
- Lip sunscreen ingredients: including avobenzone, cinnamates, benzophenone, oxybenzone.
- Additional allergens include fragrance, Myroxylon pereirae resin (balsam of Peru - a tree bark extract with a vanilla and cinnamon aroma), dodecyl gallate and octyl gallate ( antioxidants and preservative found in cosmetics and dental products), and benzoic acid (a preservative in foods and cosmetics).
Some allergens that cause allergic eczematous cheilitis come int contact your lips in surprising ways and you need to think outside the box to make the connection:
- Allergens in foods, drinks, gum and lozenges can include spices, herbs, the foods I listed above, eggs and crustaceans. Food and drink products may also contain fragrances, preservatives, antioxidants, and dyes.
- Dental and oral hygiene products (such as toothpaste and mouthwash) may can contain allergens such as mint, cinnamon and other flavorings. Colophony in dental floss and toothpicks have also caused allergic lip reactions. Dental prosthesis may also contain allergens that cause allergic cheilitis.
- Nail polish substances you carry to your mouth from your hands may cause lip allergic reactions (e.g., formaldehyde).
- Other allergens contact your lips in items placed in your mouth or that touch your lips including dental materials, musical or occupational instruments, objects put in the mouth daily (e.g., nails, needles, pens), rubber, leather objects, metals (nickel, cobalt, gold). Nickel is a notorious allergen. It is a metal that can be used in the casing of lipstick and also in items such as bobby pins, musical instruments, metal straws etc.
These are all common allergens and contact with them provides an opportunity for these allergens to cause allergic cheilitis. It's a broad list yet you would be surprised how often you can figure it out as you go forward and watch what potential allergens come into contact with your lips. A dermatologist well versed in allergic contact dermatitis can help if you are unable to discover the allergen yourself.
Is it normal for lip balms to cause tingling?
Tingling when you apply a lip balm may be a subtle sign that the lip balm is causing irritation. This can happen with ingredients such as salicylic acid (to exfoliate lips), phenol and menthol. My advice would be to avoid any lip balm that causes tingling because lip skin is sensitive and this may indicate impending chapping from an irritant dermatitis.
Can you become addicted to lip balm?
Yes, when the balm is made with allergens your lips will appear chapped when they are actually suffering from an allergic rash. You apply more lip balm to heal your chapped lips, make the rash worse, and start a vicious lip balm addiction cycle that sells lots of lip balm. In my experience, people trust their lip care products and don't often think of them as the potential cause of their "chronically chapped lips".
Keep your lip care products hypoallergenic and avoid lip balm addiction. This is why I am so particular about lip care products. Dr. Bailey
Again, lip skin is very sensitive, ingredients penetrate readily and your lips are thus prone to allergic cheilitis.
Avoid lip balm and lipstick ingredients that include the top allergens. These include fragrances, flavors, eucalyptus, mint, lanolin, non-mineral sunscreen ingredients, menthol and camphor. Focus on the simple hydrating and protecting ingredients such as oils, waxes and dimethicone.
3 steps to tell if your dry chapped lips are due to an allergic reaction?
If your chapped lips are due to an allergy, they become chapped within a few days after exposure to the allergen, and can take a week or more to heal.
- If you think that you may have chapped lips due to an allergic reaction, try avoiding the allergens that I listed above for a month
- Moisturize your lips with a simple, low allergen product. Again, my favorite hypoallergenic lip balm is my Natural Lip Balm.
- Once your lips have healed you can retest just one of the allergens. If your dry lips reoccur you may have your answer.
Why are chapped lips so common?
Lip skin is unique, which makes it prone to chapping.
How does the skin of your lips differ from other skin?
Lips are a transition between your normally structured skin and the oral mucosa, which is the soft wet lining of your mouth.
- Normal skin has a barrier dead cell layer that protects it.
- Oral mucosa does not.
- Lip skin has a thin and weak dead skin cell barrier layer.
This makes lip skin more fragile than normal skin, such as your face. There is more Trans Epidermal Water Loss, making them prone to dryness. Also, allergens and irritants penetrate easily. Lips have more capillary blood flow right below the surface, which makes lips pink. They also bleed easily. There are no oil glands on your lips meaning you are responsible for keeping them moisturized. There is also very little melanin, making them prone to sun damage.
Beyond lip balm, what are the other remedies for chapped lips?
The most important thing is to figure out WHY your lips are chapped. It’s usually an allergic reaction to lip balm, food/drink or dental care products. Get rid of the allergen and the chapping heals.
Using a truly hypoallergenic lip balm and mineral sunscreen lip protectant is really important to allow chapped lip skin to heal. That means a lip balm with hypoallergenic oils like coconut oil, shea butter, almond oil and other bland oils. These are often held together with beeswax. Dimethicone is a good protectant ingredient to help prevent wind chapping. Keep these products stocked everywhere you may need them so that you can apply them often.
Washing lips after contact with potential allergens in food and drink (think citrus and mint) and applying a good coating of lip balm before contact with these allergens is also important.
If lips are chronically chapped, using a 1% non-prescription hydrocortisone ointment twice daily for several days may help. Never use prescription cortisone creams without a doctor’s supervision because some are inappropriate for the face and can lead to permanent skin thinning and a rash that can scar or leave discoloration called perioral dermatitis. Also, there are forms of yeast and bacterial cheilitis (lip inflammation) that may mimic chapping and cortisone can worsen these.
Lastly, there are some important lip problems such as the presence of precancerous cells (called actinic cheilitis), lip cancer and important rashes such as lichen planus, lupus and others that may also mimic chapping. If your chapped lips don’t heal it’s time to see a dermatologist.
The bottom line with chapped lips:
Your skin on your lips is uniquely sensitive, prone to sun damage and allergic and irritation from many things. Using a good hypoallergenic lip balm and mineral sunscreen lip balm are important to maintaining healthy lips.
If chapping, rashes or sores develop on your lips, it's time to see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
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Suwirakorn Ophaswongse, Howard I. Maibach, Allergic contact cheilitis, Contact Dermatitis, 1995, 33, 365-370
Susan M. O'Gorman MB, BCh Rochelle R. Torgerson MD, PhD, Contact allergy in cheilitis, Volume55, Issue7, July 2016, Pages e386-e391
Please remember, the information presented on Dr. Bailey Skin Care’s Blog and web site, and any related links, is provided for general information and educational purposes only and are the opinions of Dr. Cynthia Bailey. Consult with your physician or health care provider for any specific medical conditions or concerns that you have. (This also applies to patients in her medical practice; the information here is not a substitute for, or an extension of, the medical care she provides for you). Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read here.