October 12, 2023

Are Lip Balms and Chapsticks Bad for You? And Could They Be Addictive?

Pay attention to the ingredients in your favorite products — and how often you’re using them

Person applying lip balm and smoothing it over lips after application.

We put our lips through a lot. We dehydrate them, crack them, lick them, bite them, peel them and scrub them. It’s little wonder that that delicate skin can get a bit temperamental from time to time.

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Most of us were taught to undo the damage with lip balms and chapsticks. But is that the right call? Could the products we’re slathering on our lips actually exacerbate the problem? But even if they’re healthy, how often should we be using them? And is it true that you can get addicted to lip care products?

We turned to dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, for answers. She busts a few chapstick myths and helps us understand the role that lip balms should play in our skincare routine.

What is lip balm or chapstick?

Lip balm comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and consistencies. Some take the form of waxy sticks, while others present more like salves or ointments. They can be glossy, medicated, tinted, flavored, scented, etc. And their prices are just as variable.

Before we dive into a discussion about lip balms, it’s worth noting that while there’s a brand called ChapStick®, the word “chapstick” is commonly used to describe a wide range of lip care products — sort of like how the brand name Band-Aid® is often used as a synonym for the word “bandage.” This article is about lip care products writ large, not a specific product or brand.

Do lip balms and chapsticks make your lips more chapped?

Some people say that applying lip balm causes your body to stop generating natural moisture around your lips. That’s just a myth, Dr. Piliang states. In reality, it’s all about the ingredients in the products you’re using.

“Lip balms containing ingredients like phenol, menthol and salicylic acid actually make your lips drier. So, you apply more and it becomes a vicious cycle,” she explains.

Some of these products also cause a tingling feeling when you apply them. This either causes irritation or removes outer layers of your skin, like an exfoliant. Then, you have less protection, are more susceptible to environmental factors and have to apply more product.

“Just avoid balms containing those ingredients,” Dr. Piliang advises.

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But it’s not just phenol, menthol and salicylic acid you need to watch out for. The chemicals in some scents and added flavorings can also irritate your skin or cause allergies. Ditto for artificial color.

“These ingredients dry out the skin and can leave it feeling more chapped, so less is better,” Dr. Piliang adds.

What to look for in a lip balm

There’s an awful lot of choices out there when it comes to lip care products. So, how can you be sure you’re using a lip balm that will actually keep your lips hydrated and healthy? Dr. Piliang offers two suggestions:

  • Look for simple, petroleum-based products. These are recommended because they keep your lips moist and prevent future chapping instead of causing it, Dr. Piliang says.
  • Use lip balm that’s at least SPF 30. And it’s important to try to find lip glosses or lipsticks that are at least SPF 30, as well. Dr. Piliang notes that you should definitely use sunscreen on your lips when you’re outside for long periods of time, during sports or at the pool or beach.

Could you have a lip balm or chapstick addiction?

Lip balm may feel soothing on chapped lips. But it can also turn into a bad habit that’s hard to break.

But is it really possible to get addicted to the stuff?

Not in the physiological sense, Dr. Piliang reassures. But — like anything else — chapstick can become a psychological crutch.

“It can definitely be habit-forming,” she says. “Applying lip balm soothes your lips, feels good and can be very comforting. That can lead to an unconscious habit that helps with stress or anxiety — kind of like twirling your hair or biting your nails.”

Dr. Piliang recommends paying attention to how often you use lip balms to see whether you’re doing it out of a real need to protect and moisturize, or for other reasons.

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Still not sure? Dr. Piliang offers several common-sense questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you have a psychological dependence on lip balm:

  1. Do you apply chapstick frequently?
  2. Do you have to carry lip balm with you at all times?
  3. Do you have chapstick stashed all over? (In your purse? In your car? In your bedroom? In your bathroom?)
  4. Do you spend a lot of money on lip care products?
  5. Have your friends or family commented on your frequent use of or spending on on lip balms and chapsticks?
  6. Do you have trouble concentrating or enjoying life because you can’t take your mind off of your lips?

The more questions you answer ‘yes’ to in the list, the more likely it is that you have a dependency on lip balm. But there’s good news: You can cut down your usage without placing your pucker in peril!

Other remedies for chapped lips

Trying to be less reliant on your trusty chapstick, but bothered by dryness? Here are some alternatives to lip balm that can help keep your lips hydrated and happy:

  • Stay hydrated inside and out. Add plump and moisturized lips to the long list of reasons to drink plenty of water.
  • Use a humidifier. Having a humidifier running in your bedroom at night can add some much-needed hydration to your skin, especially on cold, dry days.
  • Avoid spicy foods. If your lips are peeling or and cracking, eating spicy foods can really hurt. And if your lips aren’t already chapped, they may well be after Taco Tuesday! Spices are delicious, but they can irritate the delicate skin on your lips and facilitate water loss.
  • Avoid licking your lips. It’s a natural impulse, but licking your lips can dry them out further, making them extra vulnerable.
  • Change your toothpaste. Have you ever wondered what’s in your toothpaste? If you battle dry lips on a regular basis, it might be time to start checking! Like many lip balms, toothpastes can contain a wide range of ingredients. If you happen to be allergic to any of those materials, you may develop a reaction called cheilitis.
  • Skip the manual exfoliants. Lip scrubs, polishes and exfoliators may get a lot of play on social media, but they’re way less popular at the doctor’s office. They’re irritating by design! Scrubs strip the top layer of protection from your lips, which compromises the skin barrier and, ultimately, dries it out.
  • Don’t pick! When your lips are feeling flaky, it’s hard to resist the urge to bite or pull the skin off. But it’s important to let the skin come off on its own schedule. Just like a peeling sunburn, the damaged and dead skin on your lips serves a purpose: It protects the new skin cells below, giving them time to prepare for exposure to dry air and other irritants. Picking or biting the dead skin off prematurely can lead to irritation, dryness and even infection.

When in doubt, ask a healthcare provider

Humans have been preoccupied by their lip shape, size, color and texture for a long time. While standards of beauty have changed over the years, healthy smackers are always in style.

They’re also big business. Which means there are plenty of cosmetic companies, social media influencers and self-appointed experts out there who are eager to tell you how to achieve a perfect pout. Misinformation abounds. And some of it can be scary.

Dr. Piliang offers an example. “There’s a myth that the shine in a lip gloss allows the sun’s rays to penetrate more and increases skin cancer risk. While we do see skin cancer on the lips, nothing in lip balms causes cancer.”

She advises skipping the information overload and going straight to your dermatologist with any questions you have about your kisser. They can help you separate fact from fiction and give you the guidance you need to keep your lips looking luscious for a good long time!

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