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Reader question: “My lips are always dry no matter how much ChapStick I apply! What can I do?” —Alice Graham
Having chronically chapped lips may not be a glaring health concern per se, but it sure does top the list of things that make life pretty miserable, especially if your perpetual dryness comes with a side of peeling and bleeding.
You may have chalked all this up to a bad hand of genetics and accepted the reality of living with lip balm always at hand, but here’s the thing: While we can all expect some level of dryness during the wintertime, chronically dry lips that persist 365 days/year might have an underlying reason. And where there’s a reason, there’s a way out. These are some of the most common culprits behind constantly dehydrated lips—and how to finally release yourself from the cycle of chapped lip purgatory.
Lip balm addiction
Despite the hydrating promise of lip balms , what you see isn't always what you get. "Certain lip balms only contain humectants (read: immediate moisture)—like hyaluronic acid and glycerin—which draw water from the air," says Marnie Nussbaum , M.D., board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "However, if there is no occlusive—like petrolatum, beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, or squalene—the moisture will not be sealed in to protect the moisture barrier. As soon as the moisture evaporates, the lips will feel drier and appear dehydrated."
Occlusives are necessary for creating a physical barrier to prevent water loss. In short, humectant ingredients need to be offset by occlusive ingredients in order to avoid the cycle of reapplication. To be safe, Dr. Nussbaum also recommends avoiding parabens, phenol, phthalates, fragrances, and lanolin completely if you have sensitive skin . A good approach is to change balms if you feel like you're constantly having to apply the one you're already using, or feel a tingling sensation when you apply.
According to Dr. Nussbaum, the need for occlusives is also the same reason licking your lips worsens chapped lips—the saliva quickly evaporates, leaving the lips even drier and starting the lip-licking cycle over again. You may be doing it subconsciously, so self-awareness is key—if you catch yourself wetting your lips throughout the day, swipe your lips with a good lip balm instead of your tongue.
While dry skin is not necessarily a direct sign of your hydration levels, you’re more prone to lip dryness if you aren’t properly hydrated due to the quick turnover of skin cells on the lips. In this case, you’ll probably experience other signs of dehydration —but don’t worry, it’s an easy fix. Aim to drink water regularly throughout the day (experts suggest drinking roughly half your body weight in ounces).
According to Amandeep Kalsi, R.D., MPH, a registered dietitian in California, "Your energy levels, brain function, immune function, eyesight, digestion, nerve function, hormone production, muscle tone, and cardiovascular health all require vitamin B.” Vitamin B12 in particular helps your body with cell growth, healing, and cell turnover, so a deficiency can cause dryness around the mouth.
Your body can't store B vitamins for long, so they need to be replenished regularly through your diet. The good news? If you don't have a digestive condition or restrictive diet, Kalsi says you're likely able to get enough of most B vitamins by eating a variety of foods each week.
Excess sun exposure
If your dry lips get worse in the summertime, the sun may be to blame for your flaking. Yep, sunburn on lips is a thing. In fact, your mouth is even more prone to sunburn than other areas of your body because of the unique skin that comprises your lips, according to Dr. Nussbaum.
If you continue to ignore the problem, that seemingly harmless inflammation can turn into something called actinic cheilitis, a precancerous condition caused by prolonged UV exposure that creates scaly, discolored patches on your lips. Leave that untreated, and it can lead to squamous cell carcinoma. Not to scare you, but even your lips can develop skin cancer, so always apply a lip balm with an SPF of 30 or higher before sun exposure.
If you have a significant underbite or drool in your sleep, it might cause yeast overgrowth on your lips, and in turn, a yeast infection in the mouth area. You could see this accompanied by white patches on the tongue and/or fissuring (small cracks) in the corners of the mouth. Honestly, it’s best to speak to your derm if you feel like you have a yeast infection—they can get you an antifungal medication prescription that should clear up the issue quickly.