If you’re constantly reapplying, you may be stuck in chapped lip purgatory.

By Hana Hong
January 07, 2021
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Unless you were blessed with supernatural membranes, the winter weather is probably causing 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—how else are you supposed to avoid the temptation of licking?—and slather religiously throughout the day.

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

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 in order to avoid the cycle of reapplication. Occlusives are necessary for creating a physical barrier to prevent water loss. According to Dr. Nussbaum, this is also 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.

Credit: Getty Images

If your lip balm contains both humectants and occlusives, and you're still experiencing perpetual dryness, you may need to take a deeper dive into 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 actually make your lips more sensitive and prone to cracking.

To be safe, Dr. Nussbaum recommends avoiding parabens, phenol, phthalates, fragrances, and lanolin completely 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. You should also be careful of over-exfoliation, which can shed outer layers of skin and leave you more susceptible to environmental elements.

That's not to say you should avoid lip balms altogether—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 Treatment ($5; 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 bad lip balm is like drinking a soda to quench thirst. It's great for the short term, but it 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—as well as recommend the best lip balm for your specific skin type.