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How to heal dry, chapped lips, according to dermatologists

Skin on the lips is extra susceptible to environmental factors like wind, cold and sun damage. Here's how to protect — and heal — them.
Lip balms made with white petrolatum, lanolin, shea butter, beeswax and ceramides help lock in moisture.
Lip balms made with white petrolatum, lanolin, shea butter, beeswax and ceramides help lock in moisture.Kara Birnbaum / NBC

Next to a large zit, there are few things that can make you feel more self-conscious than dry, chapped lips. The bleeding, the peeling, the painful cracks. The good news is, the right lip ointment with some SPF can keep your smile bright and flake-free.

Here’s what you need to know.

What are chapped lips?

Medically known as cheilitis, chapped lips are characterized by that peeling, fissuring and cracking of the lip skin, says Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. While most people are prone to chapped lips in the winter, it can happen at any time of year.

“Your skin on the lips is much thinner and more sensitive than the skin on your arms and legs because it’s meant to help your mouth absorb food,” says Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs micrographic surgeon (meaning the removal of skin cancer cells) at NYU Langone.

That also means lips are particularly susceptible to environmental stresses, like the wind, cold weather and sun damage, Stevenson said. Plus, “the lips don’t contain oil glands, unlike other parts of the body, and so this predisposes it to dryness and chapping,” Marchbein said.

SKIP AHEAD: The best lip balms and ointments / What causes chapped lips

What to look for in lip balms and ointments

One of the best solutions to chapped lips is using balms or ointments to moisturize and soothe. When it comes to choosing the best products, Stevenson says the most important thing is to avoid fragrances and flavors as they can further irritate the delicate skin. You also want to avoid menthol, salicylic acid and camphor in lip balms, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, as they can irritate your lips. As a general rule of thumb, “If your lips burn, sting, or tingle after using a lip product, stop using that product,” says the AAD.

Ingredients that lock in moisture

“Look for lip balms with white petrolatum, lanolin, shea butter, beeswax and ceramides because they all lock in moisture,” Stevenson said. (Unrefined petrolatum contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens, Stevenson said, but white petrolatum, or USP petrolatum, conforms to the standards set by the United States Pharmacopeia and is safe to use.)

Marchbein also likes lip ointments with glycerin because they’re hydrating. Dimethicone (a silicone derivative that forms a barrier), hemp seed oil, castor seed oil and mineral oil are other great ingredients for healing chapped lips, according to the AAD. For natural hydrating ingredients that you might already have in your pantry, Stevenson likes honey, seed oils and coconut oil.

Choose ointments or balms

Marchbein recommends using lip ointments over flavored lip treatments (like in a tin or stick form from the drugstore checkout) because they’re free of preservatives and are more effective at retaining moisture. “Ointment” and “balm” may be used interchangeably, but the important thing to avoid is fragrant, chapstick-like options. While they can temporarily soothe dry lips, they tend to have chemicals (like the aforementioned menthol) and flavors that can further irritate the skin, and in severe cases, trigger eczema and allergic contact dermatitis, Marchbein said.

Using flavored, or “can also lead to a vicious cycle of constantly needing to use them and swiping them on the lips, often followed by lip smacking, which perpetuates the cycle of chapping,” Marchbein explained. “Lip ointments should be reapplied frequently throughout the day so that the lips never feel dry,” she said.

Protect with SPF

Choosing a lip balm with SPF is essential to help protect your lips from skin cancer, like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Stevenson prefers SPF lip balms with physical blockers, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “There’s no harm in using sunscreens with chemical blockers, but physical blockers protect you from the sun by sitting on top of your skin whereas chemical blockers absorb the sun’s rays,” Stevenson said.

The best lip balms and ointments for chapped lips

To help you take the guesswork out of shopping for lip ointments and balms, here are some of Steveson’s top picks for soothing and preventing dry lips, as well as some top-rated tinted options.

Aquaphor Healing Ointment

Stevenson recommended Aquaphor for its healing ingredients, which include petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin and glycerin. In addition to restoring moisture to cracked lips, this multi-purpose ointment was a pick in our guide to the best hand creams and can also treat minor cuts and burns. Aquaphor has a 4.8-star average rating from 65,763 reviews on Amazon.

Vaseline Petroleum Jelly

A favorite of Select’s for “slugging”, Vaseline’s petroleum jelly is made with one key ingredient: 100% USP white petrolatum. For those who are allergic to the common ingredient lanolin, this petrolatum-based ointment hydrates and has zero flavors, fragrances or additives that may irritate sensitive lip skin. Former Select associate editor Justin Krajeski loved the brand’s Créme Brulee-scented mini-sized tub, which has a mild fragrance, but he said it kept his lips soft (and smelling like dessert) without irritation. The American Academy also recommends using Vaseline to heal chapped lips, chafing and diaper rash among other skincare uses. Vaseline has a 4.8-star average rating from 4,322 reviews on Walmart.

Maya Chia Supercritical Chia Waterless Wonder Balm

Stevenson never leaves home without her Maya Chia Waterless Wonder Balm, which she said she applies to her face and lips day and night. The balm is made with moisture-boosting beeswax, chia seed oil and shea butter to heal any cracks or crevices. Maya Chia says the balm can be applied to your cuticles, feet, body or hands, too. The balm has a 5-star rating from 71 reviews on Maya Chia’s website.

Fresh Tinted Lip Treatment

For a soothing lip treatment that also provides some color, this tinted lip balm comes in 11 shades like Papaya, Peony or Plum (and also comes in a colorless version). Sugar, grapeseed oil and cranberry seed oil work together to prevent moisture loss while softening rough skin. Marchbein previously recommended the SPF version of these tinted lip balms because they “double as lipstick and are perfect for protecting the delicate skin on the lips while outside,” she said. If you’re looking for UV protection, the SPF 15 version of this tinted balm is still available on Amazon in a travel-size option, or you can refer to our guide to the best SPF lip balms. The tinted balms have a 4.7-star average rating from over 1,000 reviews at Sephora.

Colorscience Sunforgettable Lip Shine, SPF 35

You can shield your lips from the sun while adding color with this water-resistant tinted lip gloss that’s formulated with vitamin E, hyaluronic acid and dimethicone. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, two ingredients our experts recommended looking for in a quality UV lip balm, act as physical barriers against the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. The gloss is available in four shades, or clear, which you can layer over your favorite lipstick or lip tint. The tinted balms have a 4.5-star average rating from 506 reviews on Amazon.

EltaMD UV Lip Balm Broad-Spectrum, SPF 36

This colorless lip balm is a neutral option and an expert-recommended pick in our guide to SPF lip balms. Made with olive oil, beeswax, castor oil and vitamins C and E, this lip balm will hydrate and soothe, says Elta MD. It has a 4.5-star average rating from 2,891 reviews on Amazon.

Doctor Rogers Restore Healing Balm

Stevenson recommended this fragrance-free lip balm for its plant-based ingredients, especially if you’re concerned about petrolatum and lanolin. Glycerin, castor seed oil and castor wax hydrate lips and replenish the skin’s natural barrier. In addition to relieving dry lips, it can be used to help heal burns and scrapes and hold eyebrows in place, says the brand. It has a 4.8-star average from over 500 reviews on Doctor Rogers.

What causes chapped lips?

While environmental factors largely contribute to chapped lips, some lifestyle habits and health conditions can also affect the moisture in this delicate area, said our experts. According to Stevenson, irritation from fragrances and flavors in lip products, yeast overgrowth, having a thyroid disorder, irritable bowel disease or autoimmune disorders, and even taking certain medications can cause dry, chapped lips. Some nutrient deficiencies have also been linked to dry, chapped lips. For instance, deficiencies in iron, vitamin B and folic acid have been associated with angular cheilitis, a common skin condition marked by fissures, scaling or crusting in the corners of the mouth.

But one of the biggest — and preventable — causes of chapped lips that many people don’t realize is lip licking.

“Lip licking and lip smacking are common behaviors for those with dry, chapped lips, but it actually makes the problem worse. When someone is feeling chapped, they may lick their lips or smack them together to moisten them,” Marchbein said. “Although this may lead to temporary relief, as the moisture evaporates from their lips, it actually causes more dryness and chapping,” she explained.

Stevenson also says that dental work and having allergies can affect your lips. “People might have a reaction to an allergen, which can cause irritation and dryness in the lips,” she said: “It could be something in your toothpaste or the prosthetics in your mouth that might be causing the problem, so people should see their doctor about patch testing.”

“Lip dryness and irritation can occur year-round, especially if there is a component of eczema or contact dermatitis, meaning your lips are coming in contact with something you’re allergic to,” Marchbein added.

Why it's important to protect your lips from the sun

Stevenson and Marchbein both stressed the importance of protecting your lips from the sun daily because sun damage can happen at any time, even on a rainy, cloudy day. “If you’re going skiing, there’s still white light reflecting from the sun on the snow. Just because you don’t think the sun is out, you should still be protecting your lips,” Stevenson said.

In the summer, you can get dry, chapped lips from extended exposure to UV rays, which can also put you at risk for actinic keratosis, a precancer that forms on the face, lips, ears and scalp. Unlike melanoma, which is usually characterized by unusual moles, lumps and markings, actinic keratosis appears as small, dry, scaly or crusty patches of skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. These patches of skin can be red, light, dark tan, white, pink or flesh-toned and can be flat or raised. Actinic keratosis that forms in the lips is known as actinic cheilitis.

“The lips are not an uncommon, but often overlooked site, of precancerous lesions and skin cancers and can be particularly aggressive in this location,” Marchbein said. “Because the bottom lip typically protrudes past the top, it is prone to sun damage. Be sure to wear SPF lip balms in the summer to protect from sun damage and skin cancers,” she explained.

To help protect your lips, Stevenson recommends wearing a lip balm with a minimum of SPF 30 every day before applying makeup. If you don’t have a lip balm with SPF 30, Stevenson says you can smear some of your face sunscreen on your lips.

How to apply ointments and balms

“Apply occlusive and emollient ointments liberally throughout the day to help prevent and treat chapped lips, especially before bed. We tend to lose the most heat and moisture from our skin overnight,” said Marchbein. (Occlusives attract moisture to the skin and create a protective barrier, and emollients work to smooth out and fill in the dry cracks in chapped skin.)

SPF lip balms “need to be reapplied every two hours or sooner if the lips become wet. We often remember to apply sunscreen to our faces and body when outside but forget about the importance of protecting our lips from sun damage with an SPF lip balm,” she said.

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