Did you ever stop to wonder how the skin of your lips differs from the skin on the rest of your face?
The skin over your lips is very thin and highly vascular, hence their typical “vermilion” or red color. Your lips also have more nerve endings, making them very tactile and sensitive.
These anatomical differences make our lips attractive and nice for kissing, but they also make our lips vulnerable to dryness, sunburn and chemical sensitivities.
Painful and unattractive, chapped lips are especially common in the fall and winter because of the dry, cold air outside, the dry, warm air inside, and—paradoxically—because of the products we use to prevent or treat chapped lips.
Last week I posted about dry eyes and how the preservatives in over-the-counter eye drops might actually make the problem worse.
The same is true for lip products. Like the thin, sensitive tissue over our eyes, our lip tissue can over-react to certain chemicals. When shopping for lip products (or anything), read the ingredients! Several irritating chemicals are commonly found in lip products.
Menthol (or peppermint) and camphor are the primary ingredients of “medicated” lip balms such as Carmex and Blistex. They produce a temporary cooling or numbing sensation, but can be very irritating to sensitive skin.
The chemical sunscreen Avobenzone (oxybenzone), usually found in lip balms with an SPF of 15 or higher, such as Chapstick Ultra SPF 30, is a common allergen. Your lips might react by becoming swollen and painful.
You might not realize you are sensitive to these products and get caught in a frustrating cycle of dry lips, more lip balm, drier lips (just like with eyes and eye drops). You might even feel it necessary to see a dermatologist who will give you a prescription for a steroid cream, but not correct the underlying problem.
Be your own medical detective. If you use any lip product frequently and your lips continue to be chapped and painful, stop using the product and see if the problem resolves in a few days.
Also, try to break the habit of licking your lips. We all do it now and then, but if your lips are chronically dry, it is easy to do too often. As the saliva on your lips dries, moisture is pulled out of your lip’s skin as well, making your lips even drier.
Lips have neither hair nor sweat glands, so they do need some protection against dry air and sun. Look for balms with as few ingredients as possible. Plain petroleum jelly works great, as does a drop of olive oil. Good sunscreens for sensitive lips are zinc and titanium.
And avoid lip balms with flavors—they only encourage you to lick the balm off your lips.