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 very thin on our lips, making them so lovely and soft, but also less protected than “normal” skin. Also, lips don’t have hair follicles or associated oil glands that produce oil to hydrate the skin—these key differences mean lips are less able to keep in water and are more likely to be affected by changes in temperature, air humidity, the elements, and irritants found in foods or product ingredients. Not only that, but certain medications, like Accutane, can dry out your lips, too.
Some other fun lip facts that you may not know: Lips don’t have melanocytes (pigmented skin cells) to provide protection from the sun. Instead, their lovely pink color comes from their high concentration of blood vessels. This lack of pigment increases the risk of developing skin cancer on the lips. Additionally, lips and fingertips have the highest density of nerve endings, explaining why kissing can be so much fun. Finally, you actually cannot over moisturize your lips—there are no pores or oil glands to block, so the thicker the better when it comes to lip care products.
What happens to lips when wearing a face mask outside in cold weather?
The good news is that masks are a form of protection for your lips since they prevent them from getting exposed to the elements. The bad news is that mask-wearing often leads to increased mouth-breathing, which can dry out your lips. Then, the added moisture from trapping our respiratory droplets changes the pH and biome of our skin, contributing to an increase in the growth of unwanted yeast and bacteria.
What are the qualities you look for in a good lip balm?
Most lip balms are petroleum-based, using fossil fuel hydrocarbons to create an occlusive covering that prevents further loss of water. This works on one level because it prevents the evaporation of water from your lips, but that’s about it. Petroleum-based products cannot be absorbed into the skin and they do not provide ingredients that help your skin heal, except the prevention of water loss.
More importantly, lip balms often contain ingredients that can irritate your lips, slowing the healing process. For example, the incidence of allergy to lanolin, which is sheep sebum and a key ingredient in Aquaphor, 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. Similarly, fragrance, flavor, and menthol are all common irritants found in popular lip balms. Neosporin and Polysporin are also common causes of irritation with widespread bacterial resistance—meaning, they play no purpose in skincare. Also, some of the more common preservatives like parabens are of concern because absorption rates of these chemicals are higher when applied to the lips than to the rest of our skin.
My take-home point is this: Less is more when it comes to ingredients to heal chapped lips. The cheapest option is plain old petroleum jelly, but the most effective option is Doctor Rogers RESTORE® Lip Balm.
Another important point to add when choosing a sunscreen lip balm is to look for zinc oxide. Zinc oxide works better than chemical sunscreens because it protects your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Also, it is not absorbed into your skin and starts working as soon as you apply it, unlike chemical sunscreens that have to be absorbed first.
Any application advice?
Lips become chapped from a loss of water, therefore prevention through protection is key. You want a lip balm that has the staying power to protect your lips from all that you and the world throw at them. You also want to use a lip balm proactively—just like you put on a coat before you go outside, put on a lip balm to protect healthy lips before exposure, whether it be from putting on a mask, going for a walk on a cold, windy day, or eating spicy foods.
Any special lip treatments or hacks you recommend?
Less is definitely more—lip scrubs and plumping serums all have a high likelihood of causing irritation and chapped lips. If your lips are a flaky mess, do not pick or scrub at the dead skin, because in addition to pulling off the dead skin, you will pull off some living skin, causing further damage and a prolonged healing process.
Instead, before bed and after you have brushed your teeth, coat your lips with an AHA-based face treatment for five minutes, gently wash this off, and then follow with a generous coating of Doctor Rogers RESTORE® Healing Balm and go to sleep. In the morning, you’ll wake up to dreamy supple, soft, and smooth lips. Apply a lip balm containing non-irritating ingredients like the RESTORE® Lip Balm before you head out the door or hit your first Zoom conference.
With lipstick getting less traction (except during Zooms, of course), do you expect balms to become even more of a priority?
Yes! Right now it is all about fun eye makeup and fashionable masks. As lips are not being seen often, now is a great time to take care of them with an effective, long-lasting lip balm like the Doctor Rogers RESTORE® Lip Balm that actually works, instead of the fragranced, tinted, or sparkly stuff that may look fantastic but isn’t doing anything good for you or your lips.
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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.