Winter is here for a few more weeks, and unfortunately, that means chapped lips are, too. But before you repeatedly layer (and layer and layer) your lip balm, read this: It turns out, not all formulas are created equal and some could even be making your chapped lips worse. For an expert explanation, we spoke with Joshua Zeichner, a New York-based dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
So why does it sometimes feel like the more you apply lip balm, the more you need it? “There are two potential issues that arise when using lip balm,” says Zeichner. “First, if it has a potentially irritating ingredient, it can cause inflammation and loss of hydration. This, in turn, causes your lips to need more moisture so you keep applying the product and it turns into a vicious cycle.” Zeichner recommends checking the ingredient list and staying away from products that contain fragrance, camphor, menthol, or salicylic acid, which can irritate the fragile skin on and around the lips.
The second problem can occur if you continually use occlusive products (ones that form a barrier on the skin). An example of an occlusive ingredient: petrolatum. “These formulas create an artificial barrier to lock in moisture, but when overused, can cause lips to become lazy because the skin doesn’t have to work to maintain its own hydration level,” Zeichner says. When your lips get used to having it on, they become extra dry when it’s not there. The natural reaction would be to layer on more product, but the trick is to let them be if you want them to heal. “You have to go through the dry spell to get lips back to normal and working on their own again before applying another balm,” he says. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these products; just do so in moderation.
So what makes a good balm? Zeichner suggests looking for ones made with lanolin, like Bite Beauty Smashed Agave Lip Mask ($26, sephora.com). This ingredient is semi-occlusive, meaning it creates a barrier while still allowing skin to breathe so you get the best of both worlds. But just because you’ve found the proper dry lip fix doesn’t mean you should go overboard using it. “Apply it when you need it, rather than compulsively throughout the day,” says Zeichner. “Constant reapplication can cause more harm than good.”