Emotional Support Chapstick No Longer Working? Here's What It Could Mean

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How To Heal Chapped Lips, According To ExpertsHenry Arden

Aside from ruining an otherwise perfect lip combo, dry, peeling lips left untreated for too long can get itchy and even painful. But how do you heal peeling lips, exactly, and how should you go about treating them when your emotional support Chapstick is no longer working?

First, don't panic—often, the cause of chapped lips is simple. Cold, dry weather can make your lips chap or peel, and so can being dehydrated, licking your lips too much, or eating salty foods. It could also be that you're simply more prone to chapped lips than others. However, unlike other parts of the body, your lips don't have oil glands, which makes it difficult for them to retain moisture, so chapped lips are common for everyone.

That said, if your flaky lips persist for more than a few weeks, there could be something else at play. “Most cases of chapped lips can be treated in just a few weeks without a dermatologist’s intervention,” says dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, MD, the founding director of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics.

Ahead, experts explain how to heal chapped, peeling lips and what might be causing them in the first place.

Meet the experts: Ife J. Rodney, MD, is a dermatologist and professor of dermatology at Howard University and George Washington University. Debra Jaliman, MD, is a dermatologist based in New York City. Adam Friedman, MD, is a professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Doris Day, MD, is a clinical associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Mona Gohara, MD, is a dermatologist, member of Women's Health's Advisory Board, and an associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine Department of Dermatology.

Symptoms Of Chapped Lips

While you're probably familiar with the feeling already, here are some clear signs your lips are chapped, according to New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD.

  • Dryness

  • Redness

  • Peeling or flaking

  • Cracking or bleeding

How To Heal Peeling Lips

The key to fighting peeling lips related to a low-key issue (like dryness from the weather or too much lip-licking) is restoring the barrier and retaining water. For a quick fix, dampen your lips with water (not saliva) and then using something thick to coat them, says Adam Friedman, MD, is a professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. He suggests products with paraffin wax. Another good option? Lip balm with sunscreen—and, sorry, but no flavoring or fragrance. "You want to avoid any chance of interacting with potential irritants or allergens," Dr. Friedman says.

These are good ingredients to look for in your standard lip balm, according to the derms:

  • Ceramides

  • Lanolin

  • Shea butter

  • Vitamin E

  • Sun protectants, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide

You can also try some natural remedies to help speed up healing, like a sugar scrub made with one part brown sugar to ½ parts coconut oil to remove dead skin, Dr. Rodney suggests. “Other helpful remedies include aloe vera, honey, and cocoa butter," she says. “Once you’re done, you can add petroleum jelly or beeswax if you’re not allergic, which helps prevent any future moisture loss.”

In order to prevent peeling lips in the first place, apply lip balm as needed, says Dr. Friedman. A good way to know if you should reapply is whenever you feel the urge to lick or peel your lips, apply some moisture instead. At night, he recommends applying a thick lip moisturizer before bed. This is especially important for mouth breathers or people who sleep with their mouth open because you lose a lot of moisture that way.

What causes chapped lips?

But what actually causes chapped lips in the first place? Here are the potential reasons, according to experts.

1. Salty And Spicy Foods

Big fan of snacks like pretzels or chips? They could be the reason for your peeling lips. Salty foods, particularly those that have a lot of salt on the outside, can definitely affect the skin on your lips, says Doris Day, MD, a clinical associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Salt holds water, so it can absorb the water away from the lips and just dry them out,” she says. The same goes for spicy foods, which can cause skin irritation and water loss, Dr. Day adds.

Treat it: Lay off some of the salty foods for a while and let your lips heal by using a paraffin wax-based lip balm.

2. Licking Your Lips Too Much

This is probably the worst thing you can do for dry lips, says Dr. Friedman. “Saliva is comprised of enzymes that are meant to break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, which are what your lips are made of,” he says. So, if you're licking your lips too much, it could irritate the skin and cause them to peel or dry out.

Treat it: Try not to lick your lips so much. Keep a lip moisturizer on hand so that when you have the urge to lick, you swipe instead.

3. Sunburn

Did you know that you should apply sunscreen to…your lips? Just like the rest of your body, your lips can get sunburned, leaving them peeling. The sun can also dry out areas that are already naturally on the drier side, Dr. Day says, and the inflammation from a sunburn can leave your lips peeling as skin cells turn over and try to replenish.

Treat it: Use cold compresses followed by unscented aloe vera gel, Dr. Jaliman advises, and protect your lips with SPF lip balm.

4. Dehydration

Because of the quick turnover of skin cells on the lips, you’re more prone to dryness if you aren’t properly hydrated, Dr. Rodney explains. Technically, this can happen any time of year, but it’s more common in the winter, when dry indoor air can zap your skin of natural moisture.

Peeling lips may also be due to exposure to dry air. “The lack of moisture in the air, particularly in the winter, can cause dry lips,” Dr. Rodney says. If you live in an area with low humidity year-round or you’re sensitive to dips in moisture that can happen with the changing seasons, a dry atmosphere could be the reason behind your peeling lips.

Treat it: First, drink more water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans doesn't have an exact recommendation for the amount of water you should consume per day, but prioritizing water and avoiding sugary drinks is best. As for dealing with dry air, a humidifier—which is designed to infuse your surroundings with moisture—can help, Dr. Rodney says. Have a humidifier next to your bed—especially at night and during the winter months—to get relief, she says.

5. Medication

Medications can also cause dry, peeling lips. This is a common complaint for many people who use acne meds, Dr. Friedman says. “I tell my patients who are on Accutane that that’s the number one side effect—dry, cracked lips,” he says. “I tell them that they should be using a lip balm so often that their friends should be asking them, ‘What the heck is in that stuff that you’re using it so much?’”

It’s not just Accutane, though. These medications can also affect your lips, according to Dr. Rodney:

Treat it: First, talk to your doc about whether the meds you're taking could cause dry lips. If you can't stop taking your medication any time soon, apply a moisturizing lip balm to combat the side effects, per Dr. Friedman. If the peeling gets more severe, a trip to your MD might be worth it to make sure you're not allergic to something you're using.

6. Yeast Overgrowth

A yeast infection in the mouth area can lead to dry, flaky skin around the mouth and sometimes even fissuring (when you get small cracks in the corners of the mouth), Dr. Day says.

Treat it: Talk to a derm. Like yeast infections anywhere else, a prescribed anti-fungal medication is your best bet.

7. Actinic Cheilitis

Actinic cheilitis is more common among older individuals, and it's characterized by dryness and scaly patches or plaques, typically on the lower lip. With this condition, “the skin has been damaged from chronic sun exposure so much so that it can’t repair itself,” Dr. Friedman explains. Lips affected by actinic cheilitis are at risk for developing skin cancer, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you think you could have it.

"In this kind of dry, cracked area, it’s very easy for skin cancers to emerge, and so we do see a lot of squamous cell carcinomas in older individuals on the lower lip because of that," Dr. Friedman notes.

Treat it: Treatment involves topical field therapy or photodynamic light therapy to either produce an immune response or kill off damaged skin cells. But first, your doctor will need to diagnose you via a skin biopsy.

8. Vitamin Deficiencies

“Vitamin B deficiencies can result in dry, cracked, angry, red lips,” Dr. Friedman says. You may notice a dry, red rash around the mouth area. Most cases come down to a B12 deficiency, Dr. Rodney says. This vitamin helps your body with cell growth, healing, and cell turnover, and a lack of B12 causes dryness and slows healing, she explains.

"A vitamin C deficiency can also cause chapped lips, but this is rarer since most diets contain the recommended daily intake of vitamin C," adds Dr. Rodney.

Treat it: A blood test can help your doctor determine what your exact vitamin deficiency is and prescribe necessary supplements (or suggest dietary adjustments) as required.

9. Allergic Reaction Or Irritant Contact Dermatitis

An allergic reaction can cause peeling, redness, and swelling around the lips, Dr. Day says, and it will likely be more itchy than scaly. Allergic reactions can come from ingredients in your makeup, skincare, or even your toothpaste.

Whitening toothpaste and toothpastes with cinnamic acid or cinnamon derivatives especially can cause allergic reactions and chapped lips, says Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and member of Women's Health's advisory board. So can lip products with fragrance, menthol, camphor, and dye.

Irritant contact dermatitis, on the other hand, is caused by friction on the lips and is often brought on by metal mouth implants like retainers. “Metal implants or various composites of dental implants can be a chronic source of lip peeling,” Dr. Friedman says.

Treat it: A topical steroid or oral medication will usually do the trick for either issue.

10. Lichen Planus

Lichen planus is an inflammatory skin condition characterized by swelling and itchy, purple bumps on the body that can also appear on the lips, per Dr. Friedman. When it does, it usually shows up as purple or brownish cracked areas on the lips. The condition is thought to come from Hepatitis C (a virus that attacks your liver), certain medications, or reactions to metal fillings in your teeth—but it can also be due to an autoimmune reaction.

Treat it: A prescribed anti-inflammatory or topical steroid will help.

11. Paraneoplastic Pemphigus

This is a *very* rare condition, and most cases of chapped lips likely won't be from paraneoplastic pemphigus, so don't panic! Paraneoplastic pemphigus is an “autoimmune blistering disease associated with underlying cancer,” Dr. Friedman says. While it can appear in the form of a skin rash, the hallmark of this condition is erosive oral disease. Your lips will typically crack open and bleed, causing sores, redness, and swelling around the mouth. Always talk to your doc if you think your lips are showing signs of blistering and serious discomfort.

Treat it: If you are diagnosed, your doctor will likely prescribe steroids and topical antibiotic ointment for the actual skin lesions and blisters and guide you through any other treatment necessary to address the underlying cancer if you do have a malignancy.

When To See A Doctor

Most chapped lips take two to three weeks to heal with consistent treatment, per Dr. Rodney, so you need to be diligent about taking care of your pout and just wait it out a little.

But, if you’ve tried to make a bunch of lifestyle tweaks and you’re not seeing an improvement (or if your lips are getting worse), Dr. Rodney says it’s time to see a dermatologist. Also, if your lips are bleeding, have a yellow crust, or your lip problems are arising at the same time as other uncomfortable symptoms across your body, you should also go to your doctor, says Dr. Gohara.

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