What are the common causes of chapped lips?
Lips are an amazingly specialized area of our skin. The top layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, is a hard, protective layer of dead keratinocytes (skin cells). This layer is particularly thin on the lip, which makes them lovely and soft, but also makes them less protected than “normal” skin. Lips also do not have hair follicles or their associated oil glands that produce oil to hydrate the lip skin. These characteristics put lips at a greater risk of becoming dry, irritated or ‘chapped’. Lips are more apt to get dehydrated and are more likely to be affected by changes in the temperature, air humidity, wind, sun and irritants. Irritants may include foods or some of the ingredients in your lipstick or lip balm. Additionally, medications like Accutane can dry out your lips.
How can a person know when they need to use lip balm?
Lips become chapped from a loss of water and this can dry air and impair the skin barrier from irritation or injury to the lips. Prevention through protection is key! Just like you put on a coat before you go outside, put on a lip balm to protect healthy lips and to help heal chapped lips.
Once your lips are chapped, the skin barrier is broken and that increases the risk of further irritation. To heal you must keep them covered with a protective coating that prevents further water loss, returns hydration to the skin and DOES NOT cause further irritation! Vaseline/petroleum based products use hydrocarbons to create an occlusive covering that prevents further loss of water…. but they do not add any moisturize back and often contain ingredients that can be irritating. Neosporin, Polysporin, and Aquaphor are all common causes of irritation. Over the counter topical antibiotics that contain neomycin and bacitracin are "Top-10 Sensitizers" per the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, with reported rates of reaction as high as 34%!! Lanolin (sheep sebum and a key ingredient in Aquaphor) has never been shown to aid in healing the skin but the incidence of allergy to it is rapidly increasing. A recent study of 1,012 children, found 66% of kids with eczema and 29% without eczema react to lanolin when patch tested.
When your lips are chapped, you don’t want to use any of this stuff. Irritated skin, even on the lips, absorbs more chemicals and the risk of allergy and inflammation is increased. Similarly, avoid fragrance, flavor, menthol, and camphor found in Carmex and Blistex as they are common causes of irritation and allergy.
Take home point: Less is more when it comes to ingredients to heal chapped lips.
What ingredients should we look for in a lip balm?
Fragrance-free plant oils like coconut oil, olive oil, castor seed oil, and glycerin are good. If you want a lip balm with sunscreen, I recommend looking for zinc oxide in the ingredient list.
Is there a way to gently remove dead skin without damaging the lip area?
A trick I recommend is covering your lips with a plant oil such as one of the ones listed above, then use an old, soft toothbrush to gently brush away dead dry skin while hydrating your lips. Do not pick at the dry skin bits because in addition to pulling off the dead skin you will pull off some living skin, causing further damage.
Lips products I recommend:
RESTORE Lip Balm! It only has three, plant-based, hypoallergenic ingredients that are all key to the healing process. The Castor Seed Oil and wax protect and prevent water loss. Unlike petroleum-based products, these contain fatty oils that can both protect and hydrate! The glycerin is a powerful humectant that pulls water into the lips to further rehydrate. Glycerin is a sugar as well, which gives it a natural, non-irritating, sweet aftertaste. It is the best thing out there for lips and once you use it, there is no going back. A distant second choice is plain Vaseline. It does not hydrate the lips but it does protect them and the risk of irritation from it is exceedingly low.
Other fun lip facts:
Lips do not have melanocytes (pigmented skin cells) to provide protection from the sun. Their lovely pink color comes from their high concentration of blood vessels. But this lack of pigment increases their risk of developing skin cancer.
Lips and fingertips have the highest density of nerve endings, explaining why kissing can be so much fun.
You cannot over moisturize your lips. There are no pores or oil glands to block so thicker the better when it comes to lip products.
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Meet the author: Board-certified and practicing dermatologist, Dr. Heather D. Rogers, MD, is the founder of Doctor Rogers Skin Care and Modern Dermatology in Seattle, Washington. She studied at Stanford, University of Washington School of Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center. She lectures nationally, is well published, and an active member of the American Academy of Dermatology. Highly respected among the skin care community, Dr. Rogers has been annually named “Top 1% of Most Honored Doctors in the US” by Castle Connolly.