- Dry and chapped lips are commonly caused by environmental factors, such as exposure to the sun and cold weather.
- Other causes include dehydration, vitamin deficiency and skin conditions such as eczema and angular cheilitis.
- Lip skin is thinner than facial skin and does not contain oil glands.
- Dry lips can be effectively treated with the regular application of a moisturizing lip product.
Chapping of the lips is a minor form of inflammation caused by constant dryness. Symptoms include skin tightness and flaking. When left untreated, chapped lips can worsen in condition, and may begin to crack and bleed.
Why Are Lips Dry?
The thin skin on the lips has a low moisture capacity, and is one of the first areas of the body to suffer from dryness and discomfort. In contrast to the balance of the face, the lips do not contain oil glands which produce a protective, moisture-retentive layer of sebum.
Lip skin also contains less melanin than the skin on the body, which makes it more susceptible to dryness caused by sun exposure.
Dry and chapped lips can be caused by a number of factors, including weather, dehydration, sun damage, smoking or vitamin deficiency. In some cases, they can be a symptom of an underlying health issue.
If your lips suddenly become inflamed, dry and chapped, and you experience a burning or stinging sensation, this could be a sign of skin irritation or an allergic reaction.
Using a new cosmetic or skin care product for the first time can sometimes cause irritation; food sensitivities and seasonal allergies can also have an adverse effect on the lips. If these symptoms persist after a few days, consult your dermatologist.
Dryness and peeling
Applying a mild lip exfoliant containing nourishing oils, such as castor seed or hemp seed oil, can reduce dryness and peeling. An emollient lip balm should be applied immediately afterward to seal in moisture, and reapplied as needed. Look for balms containing petrolatum, shea butter, ceramides and dimethicone, as these chemicals are all effective at retaining moisture.
Products should be applied gently and with caution, as any abrasion can tear the already damaged skin on the lips. Be sure to select products that are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic to avoid further irritation.
Cold, dry air can deplete moisture from the fragile, thin skin of the lips. Frequently moving from one extreme to another—for instance, from the frigid outdoors to a heated interior and back—can also leave lips susceptible to dryness, chapping and flaking.
Apply an emollient lip balm before going outdoors to provide a protective barrier and prevent moisture loss. For ideal results, the balm should be applied several times a day, as well as before going to sleep.
To minimize exposure to the harsh elements, you should wear a face covering that shields the lips while outside. Breathe through your nose; breathing through the mouth can cause additional dryness.
Dry, heated indoor air can also cause irritation and worsen chapped lips. Use a humidifier during colder months to help restore moisture to the air and to your skin.
If your lips are very cracked and you experience discomfort, select products containing petroleum jelly, as it seals in moisture more effectively than a wax or oil.
The sun and its UV rays cause damage to skin cells. As the skin on the lips is especially thin and does not contain protective melanin or oil glands, it is particularly vulnerable, and can easily become burned and chapped due to sun exposure.
Applying a moisturizing balm or lipstick with a 30 SPF or higher will protect your skin from sun-induced chapping. As with sunscreen, sun protectant lip products should be applied before sun exposure and then reapplied every two hours during prolonged exposure periods.
Look for products containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, as both offer protection from UVA and UVB rays.
In addition to preventing dry and chapped lips, lip balms with sun protectant ingredients may also prevent cold sore outbreaks.
Lips already have a low moisture capacity, and become especially vulnerable to dryness and chapping when the body is dehydrated.
Treatment and prevention
Mild dehydration can be treated by simply drinking more water. Most experts recommend an intake of about half a gallon of water each day. Lip balm can also be applied to alleviate dehydration-induced chapping.
A healthy, balanced diet contains adequate nutrients for the dermis to function properly and provide moisture to the skin, especially in the lip area. The dermis is the thick layer of tissue below the epidermis—or surface skin—which contains capillaries, oil glands, hair follicles and nerve endings.
When key nutrients are missing, such as essential fatty acids, zinc and vitamins A, B2, B3 and B6, the dermis’ functionality is hindered and the natural balance of the skin is disturbed. This can lead to worsened dryness and chapping.
Treatment and prevention
You can treat a vitamin deficiency by introducing foods containing these nutrients into your diet, or by taking vitamin supplements.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is associated with healthy hair, nails and skin. A deficiency can cause the lips to swell and crack, and may also damage the skin at the corners of the mouth. Sources include eggs, organ meats such as liver and kidney, lean meats, dairy products, green vegetables and fortified grain products.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) can help protect the skin from sun damage. Deficiencies may lead to cracked lips and dermatitis. Sources include fish, pork, poultry, cereal grains, beans, leafy green vegetables and dairy products.
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) deficiencies can cause dermatitis and cracking in the skin at the corners of the mouth. Sources include poultry, fish, wholegrain cereals, legumes and vegetables.
- Zinc is associated with healthy skin and a strong immune system. A low zinc intake can cause skin to become dry, rough and cracked, and may also lead to dermatitis. Sources include fish, red meat, wholegrain cereals, legumes and nuts.
- Vitamin A is associated with wound healing and can help reduce inflammation. A deficiency can lead to dry, itchy skin and hinder collagen production. These side effects have the potential to significantly damage the skin on the lips. Sources include dark green leafy vegetables, yellow-orange fruits and vegetables, beef, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
- Essential fatty acids (EFA), such as omega-3 and omega-6, are involved in the production of sebum, which keeps skin soft and smooth and prevents the loss of moisture. Sources include fish, flaxseed oil, blackcurrent seed oil and nuts.
Licking and Biting
It is a common reaction to lick lips when they feel dry, or to bite and pick at them when they begin to peel. However, doing so can cause the condition to worsen.
Licking the lips coats them with saliva, which contains digestive enzymes that can slowly break down the skin on the lips over time. The saliva also quickly evaporates, leaving lips even drier than they were previously. Biting and picking at the lips will also irritate them, and may break the skin and interfere with healing.
Treatment and prevention
Instead of licking your lips, apply a moisturizing lip balm to treat dryness and provide a protective barrier, preventing further damage such as cracking and bleeding. Avoid flavoured balms, as these may tempt you to lick or bite your lips.
Those with eczema are prone to flare-ups in the lip area known as lip dermatitis or eczematous cheilitis. These flare-ups are typically caused by allergic reactions triggered by cosmetics and dental products, and cause severe dryness, redness and cracking in the skin on the lips.
Treatment and prevention
Eczema flare-ups on the lips can usually be treated with a regular application of a moisturizing lip balm. Depending on the severity of the flare-up, other treatments such as corticosteroids or antifungal creams may be necessary. Flare-ups can be prevented by isolating the irritant or allergen that is causing them and avoiding it.
Angular cheilitis is a painful inflammation of the corners of the mouth, which causes them to redden, swell, crack and crust over. Typical causes include irritation, allergic reactions and infection. Constant licking of the lips can cause saliva to build up in the corners of the mouth, which irritates the area and creates an environment conducive to bacterial or fungal infection.
Treatment and prevention
This condition can usually be easily treated with regular application of an effective moisturizer, such as a petroleum jelly. In severe cases, antibiotics, corticosteroids or topical therapy may also be needed.
When to see a doctor
If your lips are still dry and chapped after 2–3 weeks of self-treatment, or if their condition seems to worsen, speak with a dermatologist or doctor. Persistently dry and chapped lips could be a sign of an underlying health condition or an untreated allergy.
Dry, chapped lips are a common and often minor cosmetic issue. However, when left untreated, their condition can worsen and lead to more painful symptoms, such as peeling, cracking, bleeding and crusting.
The thin skin of the lips contains less moisture, oil and melanin than other facial skin, and is especially susceptible to dryness and chapping caused by harsh weather, sun exposure and dehydration. Other factors, such as allergies, poor nutrition and skin conditions such as eczema can also cause inflammation in the lip area.
Lip skin can be protected by the regular application of a moisturizing balm, maintaining hydration, avoiding potential irritants and allergens, eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking vitamin supplements. Resisting the urge to lick, bite or pick at the lip area will help ensure proper healing.
Persistent dryness, chapping and inflammation may be a sign of an underlying skin condition, undiagnosed allergy or bacterial infection. If at-home treatments prove ineffective, consult a health professional for further treatment options.
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