Brown, who lives in College Station, Texas, assumes she takes very good care of her lips. She spends enough money on them, anyway. (A tube of her go-to brand, Mac, can cost as much as $20.) And she’s always gooping something on her lips. That’s got to be enough of a barrier between her skin and the sun. Right?
But some dermatologists say that slathering on shiny lip glosses can actually increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Of course, wearing any lip product without SPF doesn’t exactly shield the thin skin from sun damage. But the slick, shiny nature of the gloss could be making the sun’s UV rays hit harder, some experts say.
“These lip glosses can make more of the light rays penetrate directly through the skin instead of getting reflected off of the skin’s surface,” says Dr. Christine Brown, a dermatologist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. (You're covered, however, if you wear lip gloss with SPF.)
At worst, say some dermatologists, the resulting sun damage can lead to potentially fatal forms of skin cancer. An estimated 3,500 new cases of skin cancer of the lips are diagnosed each year, and 90 percent of those cancers are squamous cell carcinoma. While that form of cancer isn't usually particularly serious, it can be more aggressive on the lips than on other parts of the skin. If left untreated, it can cause disfigurement, and in very few cases, it can spread to other organs and become deadly.
But the less serious effects may grab a lip gloss junkie’s attention more quickly: All that sun exposure could be slowly building gross, non-cancerous disfigurements on your lips. One such effect is actinic keratosis, a small, scaly patch of skin that can morph into a wart-like bump if left untreated. Sun exposure can also cause small brown spots that look like freckles on the lips. The spots are noncancerous but could cause people to whisper, "Hey, you've got food on your lips."
Sun damage can also cause premature aging, making the already thin skin on your lips even thinner, which can lead to rips and tears. Ultraviolet light zaps skin of much of its elasticity, leaving the skin lax. That lack of elasticity can prevent the upper and lower lips from lining up properly, which can cause pools of saliva to collect at the corners of the mouth.
It's the moisture in lip gloss that's to blame, says Dr. Bruce Robinson, a Manhattan dermatologist. Your lips are equipped with a protective outer layer, but the hydration of a lip gloss "kind of smooshes that down," Robinson says. Once that outer layer is effectively squashed, it's easier for UV rays to penetrate deeper into the skin.
"Instead of having to travel through that thicker layer, it's more condensed," Robinson says. "So the UV rays reach are reaching deeper layers of epidermis and dermis because you don't have this forcefield."
Sun's laser focus on lips
Apart from the extra hydration, the “super shine” and “ultra shine” of the glosses could be damaging as well.
“Take a magnifying glass and put it over your lips,” Robinson says. When you apply lip gloss and go out in the sun, “that’s essentially what you’re doing.”
But no studies have confirmed the lip gloss-skin cancer link, and not all dermatologists agree that it poses a risk.
“The only way I could see it is if you’re thinking you’re protected, and you stay out in the sun longer, that may increase your risk,” says Robin Ashinoff, a dermatologist in Hackensack, N.J.
That's what happened to Sherry Duplar, a fair-skinned, horseback-riding redhead who spends as much time as possible outdoors. She always applied lip balm or gloss, and figured that was enough.
“I didn’t realize, back then, that our lips were so susceptible,” says Duplar, who’s 59 and lives in Mesquite, Texas.
But about 12 years ago, Duplar’s lips were cracked and chapped, and constantly peeling, and nothing she did would heal them. She’d developed actinic cheilitis, a precancerous condition that's sometimes known as "farmer's lip" or "sailor's lip." It often leads to squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.
Since then, she’s had three laser treatments, to deconstruct the affected skin cells. The treatments which leave her lips raw, swelled up and oozing, for as many as three weeks. “It was nasty,” Duplar says.
Now she slathers on lip balm boasting 50 SPF before she goes out in the sun, which makes her dermatologist, the lip gloss-bashing Brown, much happier. Brown wishes women would abandon their lip glosses for lip balm with an SPF of at least 30. But for those who balk at tossing all their lip gloss, Robinson offers a compromise: find a lip gloss infused with SPF, which also protects the lips from ultraviolet light.