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We put our lips through a lot. Eating, drinking, kissing, licking, and exposure to the elements (unless you’re wearing a mask outdoors, that is) are just some of the factors our lips are up against, so it’s no surprise that they’re often dry, cracked, and just angry in general.
During winter months in particular, the cold wind and lack of humidity can cause extra dryness and discomfort.
“More water evaporates from the skin with hot showers and heaters,” said Dr. Caren Campbell, a board-certified dermatologist with boutique clinics in Napa and San Francisco. “Then we lick our lips, which causes even more water evaporation.”
While these external conditions lead to parched skin everywhere, our lips are far more susceptible to drying out than most other parts of the body.
“It’s pretty thin skin compared to other places on your face and it’s also much, much, much more vascular,” said Dr. Morgan Rabach, a dermatologist at LM Medical NYC. “There are so many more blood vessels in your lips than there are in your cheek skin, for example. You’re losing a lot more water through your lips, so that’s why they’re the only thing that really takes the brunt of the weather and the dryness.”
Essentially, most lips have no shot at staying supple all winter long without some intervention, so having an effective lip balm on hand is imperative.
What you should look for in a lip balm
As is the case for any hydrating product, you want the ingredients in your lip balm to include humectants, emollients, and occlusives, according to Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She says that having all three is particularly important for good lip products because some have humectants without the emollients and occlusives, which will actually dehydrate the lips in dry environments.
“Lips can definitely take a lot more oil and what we would characterize as emollients than other places on the skin,” Rabach said. “Even for people that have acne problems who generally want to stay away from more oily or thick kinds of emollients, lips can definitely take it all.”
Emollients are those saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons that help protect the skin and improve skin texture and appearance. They include things like squalane, mineral oil, vitamin E, petrolatum, and ceramides and work very well to help you feel that moisture on your lips.
Rabach suggests slathering on a thick layer of your most emollient-heavy lip products before bed since you don’t have to worry about talking, eating, or mask-wearing while you sleep. That’ll allow more healing and prevent the usual dehydration that tends to happen overnight.
As far as the many varieties of emollients go, Campbell specifically suggests looking for ceramides, which are fats or lipids in our skin that keep the water in and the environment out on a microscopic level.
“With lip balm, it’s more about creating a barrier because it [chapped lips] is usually related to lip licking,” she said. She also explained why products that have allergens or disguised drying agents can create a vicious cycle.
“You get licker’s dermatitis from frequent licking of your lips, and then the water evaporates and it’s dry,” Campbell said. “And then you start using something that potentially has an allergen in it, and you’re more likely to develop allergies on skin that’s already kind of angry.”
The overwhelming PSA from all of these experts is simple: Avoid potential allergens in lip balms. And if you’re unsure about what could potentially irritate you, conduct a patch test before use.
“Generally in lip products I recommend avoiding ingredients like menthol, camphor, phenol,” said King. “They’re initially cooling when you put them on but they evaporate quickly and you need to reapply, so it can dry out the skin. Any alcohol ingredients can also dry out the lips.”
Many of the basic lip balms on the market contain those drying alcohols, according to Rabach, which is really for their own benefit. The combination of ingredients in those products gives you that feeling of moisturization but then ultimately dries your lips out, which then makes people addicted to using the balm.
One ingredient that can sometimes trigger allergies is propolis, a resin-like material made by bees, Campbell said. Propolis can be found in some Burt’s Bee’s products or other bee-derived balms.
Lip exfoliators that contain salicylic acid can also be irritating, as well as things like cinnamon oil and peppermint oil, which are sometimes in lip balms that are designed for plumping, said King. They’re supposed to irritate the lips a little to create that plumped effect, but if used more regularly they can cause more serious irritation.
One more thing that the experts advised is to see your dermatologist if you’re having a hard time even after using one of the highly recommended lip balms on this list, particularly if the issue has to do with lip licking. They can create certain compounded formulations that are safe to apply but have a bad taste, which can help you stop licking your lips repeatedly.