If the eyes are the window to the soul, the lips are the door. And we don’t need to tick off a list of reasons to properly convey why they’re so important.
Which means that when they’re chapped – when they’re sore and rough and cracked and it hurts to even smile – it’s a problem.
Our lip skin is much thinner than the skin on our backs and hands – it’s the “interface between the outside and our insides,” says Barbara Reed, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado. Sometimes, even a simple move like licking our lips, which feels natural, can wreak damage.
“If you’ve ever seen a desert after rain comes, you know the surface gets very flaky. The same thing happens to our lips,” Reed says.
Consider this advice to prevent and treat chapped lips, particularly during winter – the most lip-unfriendly time:
Chapped lips are caused by the same thing that causes chapping and rashes anywhere on the body: extreme dryness, worsened in this case by – you guessed it – lots of lip licking. As Reed explains, saliva contains enzymes designed to help digest food, not to moisturize our lips. When the air is particularly dry, the moisture we create by licking quickly evaporates, prompting us to repeat the motion again and again. “This leads to a drying out of the top layer of skin, which causes it to shrink and detach from the layers beneath,” says dermatologist Jessica Krant, founder of the Art of Dermatology practice in New York City.
Other lip-chapping culprits are perhaps less obvious. These include the juice from citrus fruits; an allergy to nickel (which is why you shouldn’t put metallic items like paper clips in your mouth); and too much vitamin A. Certain medications – including some used to treat blood pressure, acne and vertigo – could also trigger the issue.
In some cases, chapped lips are tracked back to an allergy to ingredients in your toothpaste and lip products. Check to see if your toothpaste contains guaiazulene or sodium lauryl sulfate, or if your lipstick contains propyl gallate or phenyl salicylate. If so, stop using these products, and see if your lip condition improves.
It might go without saying by now, but stop licking your lips! Same goes for pinching or rolling them together, which also causes damage.
Wear lip balm daily – “literally around the clock,” Reed says – and if you spend any time outdoors, use a lip sunscreen with an SPF of 15 to 30, and reapply often. A word of caution, though: If your lips are already chapped and cracked, shy away from chemical sunscreens that could worsen the problem. (There are two types of sunscreen: physical, which uses UV filters to block the sun’s rays, and chemical, which absorbs the rays.)
Meanwhile, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. And keep a humidifier in your home, which will moisten the air and prevent your lips from drying out. Breathe through your nose, since breathing through your mouth can dry your lips out. And, we hate to break it to you, but you should avoid those super-hot showers that feel like a vacation from the winter cold. The heat can damage your lips – and your skin in general – so stick with cool or lukewarm water instead.
The first rule of thumb: Apply lip balm compulsively. Look for a formula with hydrating ingredients, such as petrolatum, shea butter, hyaluronic acid and dimethicone. The purpose isn’t so much moisturizing your lips as it is creating a barrier between delicate skin and irritants, including dry air, saliva and food or drink. It also helps soften flakes that you shouldn’t peel off with your fingers – since doing so can create deep cuts, Krant says.
Consider applying a tad of honey, which works because it attracts moisture from the environment. But steer clear of irritating flavors such as peppermint, camphor and menthol, Krant says. “That minty taste does nothing to aid healing.” She adds that the thinner the lip balm, the more easily it will rub off – and the less effective it will be.
Over-the-counter hydrocortisone, which is an anti-inflammatory, can also help soothe chapped lips. But Reed warns that there’s no need to “get too fancy.” Particularly strong cortisone creams can thin the skin, so don’t use one your doctor gave you for another part of your body.
No matter what you apply, do so after you brush your teeth or wash your face. Toothpaste, mouthwash and facial cleansers affect the pH balance in your mouth, potentially causing chapping. Lip balm can help counteract that.
When to See a Doctor
If you’ve been treating your lips for four or five days, and they’re getting worse – or you’ve noticed open cracks, along with yellow discharge – you might have an infection, Reed says. See a dermatologist, a doctor who diagnoses and treats conditions related to the skin, hair and nails.
It could be that you’re allergic to ingredients in your lip balm of choice, such as certain preservatives, fragrances or colorants. And occasionally, persistent chapped lips indicate an underlying medical problem, which your doctor can help diagnose. These include actinic cheilitis, which is caused by excessive sun exposure; thyroid disease; psoriasis; or lupus, which causes photosensitivity on the lips.