Wait—Does Lip Balm Actually Make Chapped Lips Worse?

Clear, light pink, and dark pink stick lip balms with water droplets

Tatjana Zlatkovic/Stocksy

For people who live in colder climates, the winter brings some seriously great benefits—cozy days beside the fire, hitting the snowy slopes with friends, and endless holiday celebrations. But there are a few pesky drawbacks that tend to come along with this colder and drier time of year, like chapped lips.

"Lip skin is especially prone to dryness and chapping during the winter compared to other body parts because lip skin has low capacity of retaining water and is a weak skin barrier," explains board-certified dermatologist Elaine Kung, MD.

When it comes to chapped lips in the winter (or any time), many people apply lip balm as their go-to remedy. We wouldn't be surprised at all if you have a bunch of balms scattered throughout your home and belongings that you reach for any time your lips need a moisturizing boost—we're right there with you. But some people say that after using lip balm, their lips feel more dry. That's obviously not the goal, so we reached out to some dermatologists to find out whether lip balm can actually contribute to chapped lips. Their answer? It's possible, but it depends on a number of factors. Ahead, learn how and why some lip balms make your lips more chapped, as well as several effective ways to retain moisture this winter.

Meet the Expert

  • Elaine Kung, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Future Bright Dermatology in New York City. She regularly shares her best tips with press outlets as well as her social media followers.
  • Dylan Alston, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist. In addition to working with patients in Salt Lake City, Utah, he shares his skin expertise and debunks common myths on his Instagram.

Why Do We Use Lip Balm?

Lip balm is a necessity for many people—even those with the simplest beauty routines tend to use it. Lip balms can vary a lot from one product to the next, but the ultimate goal is usually to hydrate your lips and help protect against moisture loss. Given Kung's point that lip skin is more prone to dryness, it makes sense that so many of us stock up on products in hopes of keeping our lips comfortably hydrated.

Does Lip Balm Make Your Lips More Chapped?

If you feel like your lip balm is drying out your lips, it probably is—but that doesn't mean all products will do the same. Many lip balms with the right ingredients—think hydrating oils, butters, and vitamins—will help moisturize as intended, though some options also include ingredients with the potential to actually make your lips more chapped, such as menthol and salicylic acid. Many of these drying ingredients may seem to help at first as they exfoliate the parched skin (more on that later), but in order to be truly effective, a good lip balm needs to get to the root of the issue by providing deeper nourishment and helping your lips to retain moisture.

Because of this, looking at the formula is key to finding a product that gives your lips the hydration they need. Below, our experts break down which ingredients to search for, as well as which to avoid.

The Most Effective Lip Balm Ingredients

Next time you're shopping for lip balm—and looking for one that actually moisturizes your lips—keep an eye out for ingredients like beeswax, shea butter, sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, olive oil, squalene, vitamin E, and hyaluronic acid. These types of ingredients will attract and retain moisture, while also stimulating the skin barrier to protect and repair chapped lips. More specifically, plant oils and butters (like coconut, jojoba, and olive oil) treat lip dryness, while beeswax and other wax-like substances shield your lips from dry air, wind, and cold temperatures, Kung says. Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, boosting the health of the skin barrier.

Another common lip balm ingredient with moisturizing properties is petrolatum, which is hypoallergenic and used in many lip balms and skincare products. "Petrolatum is often considered one of the most effective moisturizing ingredients because it reduces trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) by 98%, whereas mineral oil, silicone, and lanolin reduce TEWL by only 20–30%," Kung explains. Her top recommendations for effective lip balm products to try include Vaseline's Lip Therapy line ($2+), Kiehl's Lip Balm #1 ($10), and Avène's Cicalfate Lips Restorative Lip Cream ($18).

Lip Balm Ingredients to Avoid

Depending which product you use and what ingredients it contains, it's definitely possible for lip balm to make your lips more chapped, which is a pretty problematic outcome if your aiming to moisturize. Often, lip balm includes ingredients that enhance the product's smell or texture, or leave your lips with a fresh or tingling feeling—but our dermatologists confirm that some of these ingredients may leave your lips feeling dry and chapped.

"A few ingredients I recommend avoiding include menthol, benzocaine, salicylic acid, and phenol," says board-certified dermatologist Dylan Alston, MD. "Although these may provide an immediate cooling or medicated sensation, they commonly exfoliate the outer layers of skin, leaving your lips unprotected and susceptible to damage."

If you have chapped lips, Kung also recommends you avoid any lip balms labeled as medicated. "These 'medicated' lip balms contain camphor, menthol, or phenol, which can cause irritation, redness, and burning if used on already chapped skin," she says. "Phenol, in particular, is an exfoliant which can dry out the lips even more."

If you have lip eczema or a rash around your lip and mouth area called perioral dermatitis, Kung suggests avoiding flavored, colored, or medicated lip balms. And for people with very sensitive skin, she also recommends avoiding products that contain citral, peppermint oil, geraniol, fragrance mix, and cinnamaldehyde.

Alternative Ways to Hydrate Lips

Aside from frequently applying lip balm and other lip care products, there are several other things you can do to give your lips some TLC this winter or any other time they're feeling parched.

  • Stay hydrated: Our sources say this is one of the best ways to keep your lips moisturized and happy. "Make sure you are consuming adequate amounts of water to provide your skin with the hydration needed to protect your skin," Alston says.

  • Use a humidifier: Using a humidifier in your bedroom at night is a simple way to add moisture to the air, which in turn helps prevent moisture loss from the skin and lips.

  • Pay attention to what you eat: Contact with certain foods may affect the condition of your lips, so being mindful of what's in your go-to meals and snacks can be helpful if you're having trouble keeping your lips hydrated. "I suggest avoiding irritants that can break down the lip's skin barrier, such as salty, spicy, sour, and saucy foods," Kung says.

  • Use lip products with SPF: "In warm or sunny climates, always look for a lip SPF of 15 or higher," Alston says. "The sun commonly causes burns, chapping, and evaporation of critical moisture."

  • Don't lick your lips: "Excessive lip-licking will cause a vicious cycle of hydration-evaporation," Alston tells us. "This common habit will invariably leave the lips worse off than before."

The Final Takeaway

Some lip balms can definitely leave your lips feeling dry and chapped, but as long as you pay attention to formulas and use the right products, lip balm can be a great tool for keeping your lips moisturized, hydrated, and happy. As you shop, dermatologists recommend looking for ingredients like plant oils, vitamin E, squalene, and beeswax, as well as avoiding ingredients like menthol, benzocaine, salicylic acid, and phenol, which can leave your lips feeling dry and uncomfortable. You also can care for your lips through alternative methods such as avoiding irritants and staying hydrated, so your options are open to discover what works best for you.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Clinical Medicine & Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849435/

Related Stories