February 20, 2019

Help for chapped and dry lips

A woman applying lip balm in front of a mirror and house plants

Dry, cracked lips can occur any time of the year but are especially common in cold, dry weather. Walking around in the bitter temps without a scarf covering our lips, or fighting a cold that leaves us breathing through our mouths due to stuffed up noses can also make the situation worse.

UW Health dermatologist and Integrative Health specialist Dr. Apple Bodemer explains that the skin of the lips is really thin compared to other parts of the body. And the lips have fewer oil glands that help protect from dehydration. So they are really susceptible to the effects of dry environments.

"Once lips start to get dry, people also commonly lick their lips or start to pick at and peel them," said Dr. Bodemer. "There are enzymes in salivia and with a little bit lip licking you do add some moisture back in, but it is easy to overdo it, which only makes the problem worse." 

How to protect lips

To help retain moisture in the lips, Dr. Bodemer recommends using a lip balm or lip ointment frequently – once every hour or two when you're awake. And look for a product that contains thick ingredients that help to create a barrier on the lips, such as:

  • Shea butter

  • Bees wax

  • Coconut oil

  • Petrolatum (such as Vasoline jelly or Aquaphor)

  • Dimethicone

  • Ceremides

  • Cocoa butter

If you wear lip gloss or lip stick, apply the balm before applying the cosmetic. And if you're going to be outside, look for a product that contains an SPF factor to provide UV protection, especially in winter. While you're protecting those lips, make sure you stay well hydrated (which is good for your entire body). It can also help to wear a scarf that covers your mouth when outdoors in cold, dry conditions.

A special note about kids: They are especially prone to dry, chapped lips. Using products such as petrolatum and applying it frequently can help. It might be challenging to keep it on them, but doing so can help keep the lips from getting dry.

Other things to avoid

"Using flavored lip balms can actually cause you to lick your lips more, which only makes the problem worse," said Dr. Bodemer. Additionally, there are some ingredients in lip care products that can actually cause your lips to dry out. These are commonly found in lip plumping or lip cooling products, so be on the lookout for:

  • Menthol

  • Camphor

  • Phenol

  • Peppermint

  • Alcohol

A tingly feeling when you apply the product is usually an indication that it might not be the best for your dry lips. Spicy and acidic foods may aggravate the problem as well, so it's best to avoid them at least while you're trying to heal your lips.

When to contact your doctor

While you might not think chapped lips warrants a chat with your doctor, if you use lip balms frequently, are staying hydrated and protecting your lips from the elements and still have problems with painful cracking, open sores or sores that won't heal, that's when it is time to check with your doctor and see what your next steps should be.