Ever reapply a lip balm all week long, then realise later that your lips are still chapped and it makes absolutely no sense? Or experienced a minor lip rash after switching balm brands?
According to experts, it might be an irritant or something you’re allergic to keeping you in chapped-lip purgatory. We asked a crop of dermatologists to explain what those ingredients are, if and how you should avoid them, and why they’re even there in the first place.
By now, you’re well aware that the key to beautiful lipstick is keeping your lips healthy and hydrated underneath. That’s far easier said than done in the winter, though, when cold and bitter weather whisks in and zaps the hydration from our faces.
For that reason, there’s probably a lip balm in your pocket or bag at this very moment. You might consider it your lord and saviour when a pesky flake or crack rears its ugly head, but I have some bad news: Certain lip balm ingredients can actually contribute to chapping.
What ingredients should I look out for?
The good news is that avoiding common lip balm irritants is rather easy, but first, you need to know what those are. Board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara advises first and foremost to avoid balms made with fragrances due to their drying properties. “They just add cosmetic appeal to the product but are irritating to the skin barrier, causing more dryness and irritation,” she explains.
Additionally, the American Academy of Dermatology reports that fragrances are the biggest cause of allergic contact dermatitis (otherwise known as rashes). The Food and Drug Administration requires cosmetic companies to label all scented products with the simple mention of “fragrance” in the ingredient list, so they’re easy to look for and steer clear of.
Gohara also lists camphor, phenol, and menthol as “very, super, ultra-common” causes of contact dermatitis in lip balms. Fellow board-certified dermatologist Craig Kraffert agrees and adds that even though eucalyptus and peppermint oil are naturally derived, they have similar tingling effects and can still cause slight irritation.
Why are those ingredients there in the first place?
All of this begs the question: Why would brands use so many ingredients they know can cause irritation to the customer? Certain internet forums like the now defunct Lip Balm Anonymous suggest companies use these ingredients in an intentional ploy to keep customers dependent on their products. But cosmetic chemist Ginger King has a much simpler answer: They all have basic practical functions within their formulas.
Menthol, camphor, and the like are included in lip balms simply because they cause a cooling effect or tingle that’s popular with consumers, according to King. She says that menthol can cause hives, but that camphor is still the worse (or as she puts it, “less elegant”) of the two. That pleasant tingle, Gohara thinks, gives consumers the illusion that a balm is benefitting their lips more than usual when it’s actually doing the opposite.
Phenol, on the other hand, is sometimes used to create a lip-plumping effect and acts as a preservative for other ingredients, according to King. However, she says it is a toxin and is therefore far less common among formulas. The word “toxin” is a lot scarier than it sounds, so don’t fret if your current balm contains it – small amounts of phenol are also found in plastics and mouthwash. There’s plenty of research left to be done on the long-term effects of this ingredient, but the FDA considers it OK to digest in small doses, and no links to cancer have been found by the EPA or the World Health Organization.
How do I know if a lip balm is actually contributing to my dryness?
If the good news is that it’s easy to spot and avoid potentially irritating lip balms, then the bad news is that determining whether your current lip balm should be tossed is a little harder. “The quest to figure out the source and contributors of cheilitis, or lip rash, can be a complex mystery worthy Sherlock Holmes–level contemplation,” says Kraffert, who advises treating your lip-care routine somewhat like a basic science experiment. “If lips start doing poorly, the first question to ask is, ‘what has changed?’ The answers to this question drive the investigation into possible causes.”
Gohara’s approach is simply to change balms if you feel like you’re constantly having to apply the one you’re already using. “It’s like drinking a soda to quench thirst,” she says. “You drink something that appeals to senses with no nutritional value, and shortly thereafter you are still thirsty. Same thing goes for balms loaded with flavor, fragrance, and menthol.”
Kraffert also explains that sometimes, the lip balm isn’t the problem – you are. “It is believed that excessive occlusion caused by repeated application of lip balm, particularly if there is an irritant within the lip balm formula, may make severely chapped lips worse,” he says. So there’s actually some truth to the “lip balm addiction” rumors that are constantly being discussed online.
OK, so what should I be using?
Based on all this expert testimony, here’s our advice: If your lips are super chapped and your perpetual lip balm application isn’t helping, just use it less. If things improve, you know you either need to lessen your balm habit or switch to a different formula. Gohara recommends SkinCeuticals Antioxidant Lip Repair and plain Vaseline 100% Pure Petroleum Jelly; Kraffert likes Vanicream Lip Protectant, partly for its SPF 30. We at Allure would also recommend the Best of Beauty–winning Laniege Lip Sleeping Mask, which hydrates deeply with hyaluronic acid while its vitamin C gently exfoliates away dead skin cells.
If that still doesn’t solve the issue, the chapping or rash might be a reaction to foods, toothpaste, flosses, or the cold weather, both Kraffert and Gohara say. The best way to determine the cause and cure for an extreme lip condition, though, is always to visit your local dermatologist.