A cheap plain lip balm is 'a zillion times' better than an expensive product for chapped lips. Here's why (2024)

It's the lip look nobody wants: red, inflamed, and cracked, with dead skin peeling around the edges.

With winter well and truly here, chapped lips are among the most annoying side effects of the cooler air.

Here we speak to Deshan Sebaratnam, a dermatologist at Liverpool Hospital, and associate professor Dan Malone from Monash University's pharmacy school, on all things chapped lips.

What exactly is lip chapping?

Inflammation of the lips is scientifically known as cheilitis.

According to the National Institute of Health, there are several different types of cheilitis, with the most common being cheilitis simplex, which is what most people with cracked lips in winter will experience.

When our skin is frequently exposed to dry or hot wind, it can cause a loss of plasticity in the vermilion layer — the part of your lips that is either more pink or a different shade of brown depending on ethnicity.

Dr Sebaratnam explained the stratum corneumthe outermost layer of the skin — is much thinner on the lips than the rest of the body, making them more sensitive.

Dr Malone said the lips also have more nerves than other parts of the skin, which added to their sensitivity to damage.

Additionally, the vermilion layer does not have any hair follicles or salivary, sweat and sebaceous glands, which means it lacks the additional level of protection found in other parts of the skin.

What causes your lips to chap?

Like most dry things, a lack of water is to blame, Dr Sebaratnam explained.

"In winter, there's less humidity so your skin gets dry or your skin loses water a lot easier," he said.

A cheap plain lip balm is 'a zillion times' better than an expensive product for chapped lips. Here's why (1)

He said the cold mornings might also see people spend less time on their skincare routines and also spend more time indoors in air-conditioning.

He said these factors can also make your lips lose water more easily and begin to crack.

Dr Malone recommended drinking plenty of water to help with this.

He added certain medications and medical conditions can also make you more prone to chapped lips.

"If someone is deficient in a number of vitamins that can lead to chapped or dry lips, so vitamin B or iron deficiency or zinc deficiency," he said.

"Retinoids for acne are well known for drying out the skin, in particular, the lips.

"Anything that causes potential dehydration, so diuretics can cause dry lips.

"Unfortunately, some chemotherapy medicines can cause dry lips too."

And while any part of the skin can be subject to dryness and flakiness, particularly in the winter, Dr Sebaratnam said lips are more prone due to general wear and tear.

"If you think about it, compared to other parts of the skin even without realising your lips are constantly brushing against each other whenever we eat, where we chew.

"We have clothes everywhere else, but your lips are constantly exposed to the outside environment."

What's the best thing to use on chapped lips?

Plain, greasy moisturiser is Dr Sebaratnam's first pick.

"What you want is something thick and waxy," he said.

"Ingredients like petrolatum are good."

Dr Malone said to look for natural ingredients when picking out a lip balm, such as:

  • Beeswax
  • Olive oil
  • Almond oil
  • Coconut oil
A cheap plain lip balm is 'a zillion times' better than an expensive product for chapped lips. Here's why (2)

Dr Sebaratnam said chapped lips can also be a result of sun damage. For this, he recommended products with titanium oxide or zinc oxide.

He said some dermatologists might also recommend ceramides.

But his key message is, plain is best.

"The simple, plain, boring, cheap stuff that you can get from [supermarkets] is normally a zillion times better than like the fancy stuff that you can get from like [high-end brands] or whatever is cool on TikTok," he said.

What should you avoid?

Both experts said avoiding fragrances, perfumes and food products is key.

Dr Sebaratnam said this can help avoid another condition known as allergic contact dermatitis — which as the name suggests comes from allergies to certain products.

A cheap plain lip balm is 'a zillion times' better than an expensive product for chapped lips. Here's why (3)

"If you're allergic to a fragrance and you're constantly applying a lip balm with that fragrance, then that's going to be impeding the process and making it worse," he said.

Things like lip sugar scrubs which exfoliate skin around the lips can also do more harm than good, Dr Sebaratnam said.

"That can actually cause more damage and impair the barrier function more.

"So keep it simple, don't do anything too aggressive to your lips."

Dr Malone said although they are less common now, you should avoid products with menthol or camphor in them as they can cause drying out and irritation over time.

Lip licking can also make dry lips worse.

"Saliva is important for digestion," Dr Malone explained.

"It's got enzymes in it that can break down substances and that can cause irritation and damage if someone does have a habit of it."

What is the best way to prevent lip chapping?

Like many other conditions, prevention is better than cure.

Dr Sebaratnam said most of the products used to heal chapped lips can also be used to prevent them.

He recommended applying a thick moisturiser overnight which can help by locking in moisture as you sleep.

Dr Malone agreed and said especially if you have a dry skin type it was a good idea to get moisture into the skin early.

He recommended lip balms with SPF to help avoid sun damage as well.

When should you see a doctor?

With correct treatment, chapped lips should heal within two to three weeks. Dr Sebaratnam said if they don't, it was worth speaking to a GP or dermatologist.

He said if your lips are painful or bleeding and aren't healing, this could be a symptom of another condition called actinic cheilitis, which can be a sign of pre-cancerous changes caused by sun damage.

Dr Malone said if your lips continued to crack without any obvious cause it could be worth getting checked out by a GP.

He said dry lips can be the first sign of autoimmune conditions or allergies but can also be mistaken for bacterial or viral infections such as cold sores.

"If there's severe cracking or bleeding, definitely see a doctor with regard to those symptoms," he said.

"That could indicate something that's more serious, so it may be something like psoriasis or eczema, but it might be a particular nutritional deficiency."

A cheap plain lip balm is 'a zillion times' better than an expensive product for chapped lips. Here's why (2024)

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