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Geisinger becomes the first member of Risant Health

A dermatologist discusses which lip balms are best — and which to avoid — when treating cracked lips.

Whether you get chapped lips frequently or occasionally, dry, swollen, peeling, cracked lips are annoying — and sometimes painful.

But while it seems as if chapped lips, known medically as cheilitis, go hand-in-hand with winter, you can maintain moist, supple lips year-round. 

“When it comes to chapped lips, cold, dry weather, sun damage and persistent lip licking are the enemy,” says Oksana Bailiff, MD, a dermatologist at Geisinger. “Keeping lip balm handy and protecting your lips from the elements — no matter the season — can go a long way in healing and even preventing dry lips.”

What causes dry lips?

The skin on your lips is very thin. It’s the most sensitive part of your body and requires extra care and protection from the elements. 
Lips don’t have certain characteristics that lock in moisture like the rest of your skin. They don’t have oil glands or hair follicles, so they can’t produce sweat or oil to protect them from the elements. Lips also don’t have layers of dead skin cells that can help lock in moisture.
Your lips are also exposed to the elements more than the rest of your body. Environmental stressors, such as the sun’s UV rays, air pollutants, cold, windy weather and even certain foods, can dry and irritate your lips.

“When your lips are dry, licking them is a natural — and usually unconscious — way to add moisture,” says Dr. Bailiff. “But licking your lips strips the thin, oily surface film that protects them from moisture loss. Plus, the digestive enzymes in saliva can further strip the lips of moisture and make the problem worse.” 

Are all lip balms created equal?

Lip balm is the best way to shield your lips from the sun and harsh winter weather and help them heal. Lip balm can be applied as needed throughout the day, but it’s especially important before bedtime, after eating or drinking and before going outdoors.
If your lips are very dry and cracking, Dr. Bailiff suggests an ointment, such as white petroleum jelly, that seals in water longer than oil.
When perusing the vast array of lip balms, look for ingredients that help form a protective barrier and seal in moisture, including:
  • White petroleum jelly
  • Glycerin
  • Mineral oil
  • Shea and cocoa butters
“Make sure the lip balm also has an SPF of at least 30 to protect against UV damage,” adds Dr. Bailiff. “Look for sun-protective ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Even in the winter or on cloudy days, your lips can get sunburned, which can further dry and irritate them.”

Can lip balm make chapped lips worse?

What may come as a surprise? Some ingredients in lip balms can cause irritation, dryness and even an allergic reaction, exacerbating the problem.

You may be tempted to reach for flavored lip balms, such as peppermint, cinnamon or citrus, or ones with menthol to get that cooling, tingling sensation. But these ingredients can cause irritation and should be avoided.
Dr. Bailiff also recommends staying away from fragrances, dyes, waxes, eucalyptus and camphor, which can further irritate sensitive lips.
"Lip balms with these ingredients may soothe your lips at first, but eventually they will dry and irritate them, and cause you to reapply again, creating a vicious cycle and worsen your chapped lips,” explains Dr. Bailiff. “These lip balms also may cause an allergic reaction. A recent study found the most common ingredients in lip-care products that caused allergic contact dermatitis were castor oil, benzophenone-3, gallate, wax and colophony."

Other ways to take care of your lips

Along with applying lip balm with sunscreen, Dr. Bailiff recommends the following lifestyle habits to protect your lips and keep them soft and supple:
  • Stay hydrated. Aim for about 12 to 15 cups of fluid daily from water, other beverages and food. Your needs may vary depending on your age, health, activity level and the climate you live in.
  • Avoid salty and spicy foods. These can compromise the skin barrier on your lips and cause irritation. Not to mention, they can cause severe pain to already chapped lips.
  • Use a humidifier: Use a humidifier in your bedroom at night during the wintertime. It can moisturize the air and help heal dry lips, especially if you breathe through your mouth at night.
  • Cover your mouth when out in the elements. On especially cold and windy winter days, wear a scarf to cover your mouth for extra lip protection.
  • Don’t pick chapped lips: If your lips peel, don’t pick at them or scrub them. It can remove healthy skin, cause bleeding and make chapped lips worse.

Do you need to see a doctor about chapped lips?

By following these self-care tips, you should see improvement in your chapped lips in about two to three weeks. But if they’re not improving, or they’re painful or itchy, talk to your doctor or dermatologist. It could be a sign of an allergic reaction, chronic sun damage or an infection caused by yeast, a virus or bacteria.
“Fortunately, in most cases, chapped lips are temporary and can be treated at home,” says Dr. Bailiff. “Using lip balm at the first sign of dryness and taking care of your lips will go a long way in healing and even preventing the problem.”

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