Temperatures are dropping and there's less moisture in the air, so we know what that means — lips start to get dry, itchy, and cracked. Yet while you obviously know what chapped lips feel like (a hint: they're super tight and uncomfortable), you might not know exactly what causes your lips to get so...chapped.
First off, what exactly are chapped lips?
Chapped lips, also known as cheilitis, can have many causes. When you hear 'chapped lips' most people are thinking about cheilitis sicca. This is chapped lips as a result of excess dryness.
The skin on the lips is among the most sensitive areas on the body and the most exposed to the environment. The lips do not have the same concentration of oil glands as regular skin and are constantly exposed to environmental factors, like lip licking, cosmetics, and cold weather. All of these factors can dry out the skin barrier, leading to irritation, inflammation, and flaking.
But the weather isn't always the cause of your parched lips. When there's irritation from a product or an allergy, called contact cheilitis, lips can also become inflamed. These allergic reactions are usually due to pigments in lipsticks, fragrances, and flavoring agents in foods. You can do patch-testing at your dermatologist's office to see if that's a cause.
Irritation could also be from your everyday skin-care products. When you use acne or skin creams that contain salicylic acid, if it gets on your lips, you will find your lips are persistently dry and cracked. Apply white petrolatum or balm to your lips before applying products formulated with salicylic acid. The balm acts as a protective barrier on your lips to avoid the irritation they can cause.
How can you care for chapped lips?
In mild cases, the skin on the lips may be able to repair itself. However, in cases of significant irritation, the lips may need outside help to repair a damaged skin barrier. A good practice is to keep lips moist throughout the day to prevent drying from occurring in the first place. Regularly applying lip balms containing ingredients like occlusive agents, such as lanolin, white petrolatum, or simply beeswax, will help protect the lip skin.
The easiest way to incorporate extra hydration is to make putting on a lip balm a consistent before-bed habit to repair lips overnight.
You should also use a treatment formulated with sunscreen even in winter. It's important to use added SPF if your skin is inflamed and you think you may be getting added sun exposure. If your dry, chapped skin of the lips is affected by the sun, they can burn easily and possibly trigger a fever blister outbreak. If you already have dry lips, it's possible for more fever blisters or cold sores to spread in that dry, cracked skin.
Regularly exfoliating can help with flakes, but don't overdo it. If you see flakes, first give the skin what it's asking for, which is hydration. After moisturizing the lips, if there are still flakes, you can use a gentle sugar scrub. Just be sure to follow the scrub with a balm or similar hydrator with nourishing ingredients, such as almond oil or vitamin E, both of which are known for healing, anti-inflammatory, and hydrating properties. The raw skin left over will need to be protected to allow healing to occur.