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Is your favorite lip balm making your chapped lips worse?

By Jocelyn Solis-Moreira, CNN

(CNN) — I stash lip balm everywhere: in my purse, bedroom drawer and car, to name a few spots. I have a better chance of finding a tube of lip balm than my keys. But despite applying lip balm every few hours, my chapped lips always come back. Even name-brand products provide temporary comfort.

So many different lip balm brands promise relief against dry chapped lips; however, not all lip balms are created equal. Some might even have the opposite effect. Instead of investing in an expensive lip treatment, dermatologists advise taking a second look at ingredient lists.

What causes chapped lips?

The problem with cracked or chapped lips is how easily they dry out. Think of your lips as an extension of the skin, said Dr. Reshmi Kapoor, dermatologist and founder of Brooklyn Dermatology. Unlike the skin you see on your arm, for example, lips lack the protective layers to prevent a loss of moisture.

Skin has a moisture barrier called the stratum corneum, Kapoor said, which is the topmost skin layer that stops water from leaving the body. The lips contain a very thin stratum corneum, which makes them more prone to damage compared to the skin on other parts of your body. In addition, lips lack other skin features, such as hair follicles, sweat glands and sebaceous glands that provide extra moisture or oils.

Since lips cannot produce their own moisture, they can easily dry out when temperatures rise, Kapoor said. Excessive exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays can also burn lips, leaving them cracked, swollen and irritated. Cold weather isn’t doing your lips any favors either. Low humidity and harsh winds remove moisture from the lips and make them vulnerable to flaking.

Another issue is lip licking. People often have the urge to lick their lips as a way of hydrating them. However, the habit actually makes the problem worse. Saliva is a skin irritant, Kapoor noted, because the enzymes inside saliva that break down food also wear away the moisture barrier.

Constant licking around the lips and surrounding skin can even result in a rash around the mouth area. Known as lip licker’s dermatitis, the condition can happen at any age, although it is most common in young children. Lip licking causes a vicious cycle of licking lips to hydrate, only to dry them out more said Dr. Shayan Cheraghlou, academic chief dermatology resident at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Certain ingredients keep your lips chapped

In a perfect world, chapped lips would disappear once you apply lip balm. However, people can have allergic reactions to many ingredients, further irritating the mouth area. This is called allergic contact dermatitis, Cheraghlou said.

If you have ever felt a cool and tingly feeling on your lips when applying lip balm, chances are it has either menthol or camphor. Both act as mild anesthetics to ease any burning sensation on the lips. However, Kapoor warned these ingredients can strip off the thin skin layer on the lips, increasing the chances of lips drying out.

Beeswax is another allergen commonly found in lip balm, Cheraghlou noted. While beeswax creates a barrier to lock in moisture, people sensitive to the ingredient may get drier and itchier lips.

Salicylic acid is another ingredient to avoid, Kapoor said. The ingredient is drying on the lips in two ways. First, it changes your pH balance to make lips more dehydrated. Second, it acts as an exfoliant to get rid of dry skin cells but ends up stripping a lot of the moisture barrier.

Finally, lip balms can contain different fragrances, such as geraniol and cinnamaldehyde, to hide the smell of chemicals. Manufacturers also use fragrances to make flavored lip balm taste and smell like cinnamon and raspberry, for example. However, Kapoor warned fragrances can cause lip inflammation. The US Food and Drug Administration has found 26 fragrance allergens commonly seen in cosmetic products.

Try this ingredient for cracked lips

Both dermatologists recommend using lip balm with petrolatum, better known as petroleum jelly, as the main ingredient. Petrolatum acts as an occlusive (sealant) to preserve moisture on the lips without irritating the skin with added chemicals.

While people should apply petrolatum as needed, Kapoor recommended applying a generous amount at night to hydrate the lips. “I tell patients to layer it on their lips overnight like a cream cheese on a bagel,” she added.

Other ways to prevent chapped lips

Along with using petrolatum, Kapoor said to look for SPF. Not only are lips prone to skin cancer, but also the sun’s UV rays can dry them out. For people experiencing severely dry, chapped lips, she said people should use a product with only zinc oxide and titanium oxide since other sunscreen ingredients can be irritating.

To keep lips hydrated, Kapoor also recommended shea butter and ceramide, a type of fat found in skin cells. Both ingredients strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier and stop water from escaping. Additionally, people should drink plenty of water throughout the day and protect their lips from harsh winds with extra lip balm or a scarf.

One thing to limit, however, is using lip scrubs. Kapoor explained lip scrubs exfoliate the skin, specifically the stratum corneum. Since the lips have a thin stratum corneum, she warned people are scrubbing away the healthy skin on their lips, making them more vulnerable to environmental irritants.

Can chapped lips be a sign of something more serious?

If you continue to have issues with chapped lips or the issue worsens, consider visiting your dermatologist. Chapped lips could often be a symptom of another health condition, Cheraghlou said. For example, chapped lips often develop in people with vitamin deficiencies or with thyroid disease.

Angular cheilitis is a skin condition that is often mistaken for chapped lips. This inflammatory skin condition causes inflammation and small cracks at the corner of the mouth. The condition is worsened by licking your lips in the area and won’t improve with lip balm but can be treated with a topical antifungal, Cheraghlou said.

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