As the temperatures drop and indoor heating cranks up, it’s easy to find yourself revisiting the annual, cold-weather habit of licking your lips. (Even though we know it only makes things worse.)Dry, cracked corners of the mouth can occur for various reasons, ranging from environmental factors to daily habits. Thankfully, it's fairly easy to treat.
Whether caused by cold weather, sunburn, or some other element; dry, cracked corners of the mouth—referred to as angular cheilitis—are supremely uncomfortable. We talked to board-certified dermatologists about how to prevent this condition and what to do when it’s already there.
Causes of Cracked Lip Corners
Cracked lip corners—medically referred to as angular cheilitis—can be caused by any of the following factors:
- Cold weather
- Licking lips
- Wind exposure
- Vitamin deficiencies (e.g., B1, B2, and B3)
- Mouth breathing
- Drooling while sleeping
- Certain lip shapes (lips that turn downward on the corners)
- Certain candies and gum
- Tartar-control toothpaste
In almost all cases of cracked lip corners, saliva is at the root of the problem. “Saliva build-up creates cracks and dryness and also allows for certain types of bacteria and yeast to grow,” says Doyle. Actions, like licking our lips, drooling, mouth-breathing, or doing anything that exposes the angular corners of the lips to saliva, can manifest in irritation. This is because the digestive enzymes in saliva can cause the skin to degrade and wash away your skin's natural protective lids, which, in turn, leaves it vulnerable to infection and inflammation.
Howe adds that in addition to the elevated moisture levels in the area, the skin around your lips is also incredibly thin and mobile given the fact that it moves and stretches as we speak, yawn, and eat. When coupled, these factors make lip corners incredibly prone to stretching, cracking, and irritation.
Meet the Expert
- Kenneth Howe is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
- Amanda Doyle is a New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist and active member of the Women's Dermatologic Society.
- Marie Hayag is a board-certified dermatologist based out of Fifth Avenue aesthetics in Manhattan, NY.
- Orit Markowitz is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical dermatology and skin cancer.
How to Treat Cracked Lip Corners
Drink Plenty of Water
To prevent this condition, “It’s important to make sure you’re drinking lots of water and staying well-hydrated,” explains New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist Marie Hayag.
Use an Occlusive Lip Balm Like Vaseline
Making a true habit of using a thick, occlusive lip treatment is also key. Though using a lip balm is simple, Howe notes that many have trouble making it a true habit—and for it to work, it does have to be. “You need to have a lip balm with you at all times—refresh and replenish!” he says. And the fact of the matter is that the choice of lip balm matters, too. “Many common lip treatments are loaded with preservatives that are not good for the skin,” notes Markowitz. She recommends looking for a thick product with fewer ingredients and advises applying before exposure to harsh weather, under sunscreen, and increasing application when you get sick.
Keep the Area Dry
There are also certain behavioral adjustments we can make. Doyle recommends “removing any residual saliva that builds upon the area so that it doesn’t pool around the mouth.” Try dabbing away excess saliva and putting an occlusive balm (like Vaseline or Aquaphor) at the corners to prevent over-drying.
Consider Lip Filler
In some cases, Doyle explains, if there are any “anatomical issues that could contribute to folds around the mouth or downturned lips,” filler can be used to lift the sides of the lips and restore volume, which in turn can help prevent the pooling of saliva.
Try to Stop Licking Your Lips
Although, yes, it’s easier said than done: Stop licking your lips once and for all. Doing this when our lips are already dry and cracked is a natural response—it makes them (temporarily) look and feel better. “But it makes things worse—much worse—in the end,” Howe says. “The saliva evaporates and in turn 'wicks' moisture off the lips. So we’re drier than we were, to begin with.”
See a Dermatologist
If even an abundant slathering of lip balm doesn’t work—it’s time to see a board-certified dermatologist. In addition to treatments like Vaseline, a dermatologist may prescribe a topical steroid or antifungal treatment to pair with an occlusive balm. Often these treatments are used twice daily for two to four weeks. “If it’s not resolving with this, or there are other signs and symptoms of vitamin deficiencies, this needs to be evaluated so they can be addressed as well,” Doyle says.
Avoid over-the-counter antibiotics like bacitracin or polyisoprene, Markowitz says, adding that “more often than not, these can cause an allergic reaction themselves, often worsening the issue.” Before temps get any colder, stock up on one of those giant tubs of Aquaphor and use it frequently and generously.
Cracked lip corners are incredibly common due to the natural anatomy of the mouth and, in most cases, aren't cause for concern. However, if you're experiencing discomfort, there are a few tried-and-true methods for healing the skin in this area, such as using an occlusive balm and keeping the area dry. When in doubt, if cracked lip corners persist and cause discomfort, don't hesitate to visit a board-certified dermatologist.
Is angular cheilitis considered an STD?
No. Angular Cheilitis can be caused by multiple situations, many of which are listed above, but it is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from one person to another.
What makes angular cheilitis worse?
Things like licking and picking at the area can intensify the issue even if they provide temporary relief. These behaviors can also lead to the area getting infected.
Will angular cheilitis go away by itself?
In many incidents, Angular Cheilitis will go away on its own. If it doesn't, read the above for tips on how to get rid of it.
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Rosenthal A, Lyons A, Moy L, et al. Dna repair enzyme containing lip balm for the treatment of actinic cheilitis: a pilot study. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019;18(6):576.