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Chapped lips: Causes and remedies

A lady applying lip balm to her lips.
Chapped lips? Why do we get them and how can we get rid of them? We explain all you need to know, from the causes to remedies, in this article.

Cold winter months tends to be the season to get chapped lips, and although it is a big contributor to our sad pouts, we cannot just blame the weather.

There are several reasons why we may have dry, cracked lips, from lip-drying indoor heating to licking your lips too much. Here we explore the most common reasons we get chapped lips and what we can do to get them feeling lovely and soft again.

What are chapped lips?

Chapped lips usually develop over a period of time. We'll go through the main stages.

The 4 stages of chapped and cracked lips

Most of us don’t tend to go to sleep one day with luscious lips only to wake up to peeling lips the next day. Dry chapped lips usually develop in the following stages:1

  1. Lower lip becomes sore.
  2. Large and painful cracks may appear as the lips stretch.
  3. Cracks in the lips may cause flaps of skin to develop.
  4. Severe chapped lips may bleed and crust over as they try to heal.

This cycle can continue sporadically or even become a regular thing if you don’t treat the problem that is causing it.

Bouts of dry lips can be uncomfortable enough, but chronic dry lips (you have dry lips more often than not) can cause a lot of embarrassment and cause problems in day-to-day life.

Summary

  • Chapped lips tend to happen in phases
  • They usually start with your lips feeling sore and lead to full-blown dryness
  • It can happen sporadically or on a regular basis

What causes extremely dry lips?

There are several reasons you may be suffering from dry lips, but it usually draws down to the loss of hydration in the outer layer of lip skin, which can be caused by multiple factors.

Our lips are naturally one of the most sensitive bits of skin on our body, and with all that eating, drinking, kissing, talking, breathing and lipstick-applying, it’s to be expected that they will become chapped at some point.

But what you don’t want is chronic chapped lips that can lead to painful sores.

It’s time to get to the bottom of your flaky lips and banish them for good! Here are the 9 of the most common causes of dry, sore lips.

9 common causes of chapped lips

There are many reasons why we might get chapped lips. We take a look at 9 of the most common causes. 

  1. Cold weather

You know that feeling when you step out of the house on a crisp winter’s day and your skin feels super tight and stretched?

This is in-part due to a lack of humidity in the air, which can cause your skin to struggle to retain moisture and lead to dry skin.

Your lips tend to be even more sensitive than the rest of your skin, so they can be affected more severely.

What you can do about it: Move to sunnier climes… we wish! The unfortunate reality is that it’s hard to totally avoid chapped lips in winter.

The best thing to do is to make sure you drink plenty of water and apply an emollient-based lip balm containing linoleic and fatty acids like olive oil, shea butter, coconut oil, etc. if you think the cold weather may be causing your lip-distress.

Covering your mouth with a scarf when out in the cold could also help.

  1. Indoor heating

Another thing that can dry out your lips big time is cranking up the thermostat indoors, as it sucks the moisture from the air.

One study into perceived problems and discomfort at low air humidity among office workers found that when the air humidity went from 43% (normal) to 15% (dry) significantly more people complained about discomfort and more frequent symptoms in facial skin and mucous membranes.2

What you can do about it: you could try using an air humidifier at home – or maybe even in the office – to combat the dryness, as well as keeping hydrated, using lip balm, etc.

  1. Dehydration

If your body is dehydrated, chances are your skin is feeling pretty dehydrated too, so it’s important to keep your hydration levels up, especially if you can feel dry lips coming on.

What you can do about it: aim to drink at least 8 cups of water a day (250ml) and avoid drinking too much caffeine and alcohol. Here are seven tips to stay hydrated if you need them.

  1. Licking your lips

Although it's super tempting to lick your lips when they’re feeling dry, try to stop yourself from doing it! Saliva can dry out your lips and make them cracked and itchy.

In fact, there is a condition called Lip Licker’s Dermatitis – the repeated licking of the lips, which causes the saliva to macerate the skin and remove its protective oils.3

What you can do about it: apply an emollient-based lip balm, so you can taste it when you lick your lips and become more aware of it and try to stop altogether.

  1. Allergies to beauty products

When it comes to dry lips treatment, boring is often best, especially if you happen to be allergic to certain ingredients, which can result in your lips becoming swollen, itchy or extremely dry.

What you can do about it: choose a simple, emollient-based lip balm when you have dry lips and save the fancier stuff for when they are back to their beautiful, hydrated selves.

If you’re not too sure about what you are allergic too, try to choose lip balms that contain minimal ingredients, which will hopefully reduce the chance of you experiencing an allergic reaction.

And if you know what you are allergic too, steer clear of any lip products that contain it.

  1. Picking your lips

Do not pick the skin off your lips! If you need to physically tug at your lip skin to remove it, it is just not ready to come off and you will just create further damage and dryness.

What you can do about it: if your lip skin is flaky and dry, try making a homemade scrub with warm water, coconut oil or honey mixed with naturally gritty sugar or salt and gently scrub your lips with a clean cloth.

  1. Sun exposure

If you experience dry lips in the summer, it could be down to sun exposure. We often forget that our lips need protecting from the sun just as much as our facial skin.

What you can do about it: choose a lip balm with SPF and zinc for use in the summer.

  1. Overuse of lip balms

Ironically, lip balms can be too much of a good thing. If you use lip balms regularly – especially those with fragrances or irritating active ingredients – they can cause your lips to become even more sensitive.

There’s also the chance that you could be allergic to some of the ingredients in your fave lip balm and that reaction can cause itchiness and dryness aside from just simply having chapped lips.

What you can do about it: if you suffer with chronic chapped lips, then take a break from the lip balm you usually use and swap it for a more natural and emollient-based product to see if the problem persists.

  1. Using irritating lip balms

Some lips balms tend to be more of an irritant than a healer for you lips and they can wind up making people’s lips tingle or sting, which can be mistaken for them doing some good (when they’re actually doing the opposite!)4

Steer clear of lip balms that contain irritating ingredients, such as camphor, eucalyptus, fragrance, lanolin, menthol, octinoxate or oxybenzone, phenol (or phenyl), propyl gallate or salicylic acid that can be just too harsh on your lips.

So too can certain flavours, such as cinnamon, citrus, mint and peppermint, especially if your lips are already a bit dry.

Summary

  • Dry lips can be caused by all sorts of different factors
  • With all that eating, drinking, kissing, talking, breathing and lipstick-applying, they’re bound to become dry at some point
  • Common causes range from cold weather and indoor heating, to using too much lip balm and allergies to certain ingredients

How to get rid of chapped lips

Unfortunately, the body takes as long as it takes when it comes to healing chapped lips.

Two of the easiest and simplest lifestyle changes you can make immediately are:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Using an emollient-based lip balm in the winter, and one with zinc or SPF in the summer

Is Vaseline good for chapped lips?

Vaseline is made of petroleum jelly – a mixture of waxes and mineral oils.

Petroleum jelly works as a protective barrier and can help prevent moisture from escaping, but it is not likely to add any moisture to your lips.

What to do if chapped lips won’t heal?

If you have tried all the tips above and your chapped lips just won’t quit, it could be time to book in an appointment with your GP to discuss other potential causes and possible solutions.

Summary

  • The best way to deal with chapped lips is prevention
  • But if you get them, the first two things you should do is stay hydrated and use emollient-based lip balms that lock in moisture for longer
  • If your chapped lips simply won’t heal, speak to your GP

Takeaway

Chapped lips are something that can affect us all, but the good news is that there are several things we can do to a) try and prevent them and b) moisturise them if we do get them.

Just like the skin on the rest of our body, our lips are exposed to and are susceptible to getting damaged and dried out by our environment and lifestyle, e.g. the weather, central heating, our diet and lip care products.

Where possible, try to give your lips as much TLC as you possibly can, even if it means using a little more or a different lip balm every now and then or switching your products to something that contains fewer ingredients.

If you’ve tried several things to heal your dry lips and they’re not getting better or are getting worse, speak to your GP or medical professional.

For more on lip balms, including how to make your own, check out this article, ‘How to make your own lip balm.’

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 29 June 2021

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