Could Repetitive Lip Balm Use Make Your Lips Drier?

If you constantly reapply, you may be stuck in chapped lip limbo.

Unless you were blessed with supernatural membranes, winter weather probably causes your lips to get extra dry and flaky. And if you have chapped lips, you probably always have a tub/tube/stick of lip balm on call and slather religiously throughout the day—how else are you supposed to avoid the temptation of licking?

But if you find yourself slathering a bit too often, we have some bad news: Your precious lip balm may be causing more harm than good. Counterintuitively, some lip balms can make dry lips worse by contributing to chapping. What gives?

Ingredients Matter

Despite the hydrating promise of lip balms, what you see isn't always what you get. "Certain lip balms only contain humectants (read: immediate moisture)—like hyaluronic acid and glycerin—which draw water from the air," says Marnie Nussbaum, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "However, if there is no occlusive—like petrolatum, beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, or squalene—the moisture will not be sealed in to protect the moisture barrier. As soon as the moisture evaporates, the lips will feel drier and appear dehydrated."

In short, humectant ingredients need to be offset by occlusive ingredients to avoid the cycle of reapplication. Occlusives are necessary for creating a physical barrier to prevent water loss. According to Dr. Nussbaum, this is the same reason licking your lips worsens chapped lips—the saliva quickly evaporates, leaving the lips even drier and starting the lip-licking cycle over again.

person wearing a pink knitted scarf and applying lip balm to lips with fingers
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Beware of Allergens

If your lip balm contains both humectants and occlusives, and you're still experiencing perpetual dryness, you may need to look more closely at the ingredient list. "Some lip balms also contain allergens—such as lanolin, parabens, phenol, or salicylic acid—which can often be irritating to certain people's skin," says Dr. Nussbaum. "Therefore, there is a bit of trial and error in finding which lip balm is right for your pout." It's also possible to become addicted to medicated balms since some active ingredients can make your lips more sensitive and prone to cracking.

To be safe, Dr. Nussbaum recommends avoiding parabens, phenol, phthalates, fragrances, and lanolin altogether if you have sensitive skin. A good approach is to change balms if you feel like you're constantly having to apply the one you're already using or feel a tingling sensation when you apply. Also, be careful of over-exfoliation, which can shed outer layers of skin and leave you more susceptible to environmental elements.

What to Do

That's not to say you should avoid lip balms entirely—or that you should avoid humectants in your lip balms. And don't worry—the belief that applying lip balm causes the body to stop generating natural moisture is just a myth. "In order to maintain healthy lip skin, keep your lips well moisturized with a lip balm that soothes and protects the lip barrier with both a humectant and occlusive, like eos The Hero Extra Dry Lip Repair ($8, target.com)," says Dr. Nussbaum. "Also, since lips do not contain melanocytes and are very sensitive to the sun, you should make sure to apply at least an SPF 30 year-round."

Think about it this way: Applying a poor lip balm is like drinking soda to quench your thirst. It's great for the short term but won't help chapped lips heal. If your dryness isn't responding to a change in lip balm and you still have painful dryness after a week, you might want to see a dermatologist. A dermatologist can determine whether you have any allergies or underlying medical conditions that cause dry lips and recommend the best lip balm for your specific skin type.

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  1. Truchliński J, Sembratowicz I, Gorzel M, Kiełtyka-Dadasiewicz A. Allergenic potential of cosmetic ingredients. Arch Physiother Glob Res. 2015;19(1):7-15.

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