What causes chapped lips?
Updated: Feb 24
Chapped lips are a common complaint during winter. With the dry air in our homes and the cold temperatures outside, our lips can suffer. But what about when dry lips turn into chapped lips? Or even extreme chapped lips?
There are two main causes for extreme chapped lips. The first is irritation, and the second, less common reason, is allergy.
And the main trigger for allergy leading to severely chapped lips? It's often triggered by the lip balms that people try for their dry lips. When our lips become dry, many people respond by licking their lips. This feels good in the short term – it adds some moisture - but it's actually damaging to the skin of the lips. When saliva on the lips evaporates, it can take moisture with it. That sets up what we call a wetting/drying cycle. And if this is repeated over and over again, it can lead to extreme chapped lips. That's known as irritant contact cheilitis (inflammation of the lips due to irritation). This is actually very common in children. Some children bite their nails, and some children lick their lips. And many times it becomes such an ingrained habit that they don't even notice. (And just like nail-biting, lip-licking can be a very difficult habit to conquer). This type of irritation can also set a person up for an allergic reaction of the lips. To try to heal their dry lips, some of my patients have tried multiple different lip balms. The flavoring additives in these lip care products can trigger an allergic reaction. This is known as allergic contact cheilitis, and it's important to remember that this is a delayed allergy. It's not like your typical food allergy, such as when you eat shrimp, and minutes to hours later your lips swell. In this type of allergic reaction, your lips may become inflamed anywhere from 6 hours to 1 week later. For some people, this inflammation takes the form of redness, swelling, and even blisters. For others, it takes the form of redness and flaking, which looks like extreme chapped lips. If the inflammation is severe enough, it may even require treatment with prescription medications. One of my friends asked me about her severely chapped lips at a party, and the first question I asked was "Did you start using Burt's bees? or Eos? Or another lip balm lately?" She had.
I'm seeing a number of allergic reactions to the flavoring additives in all types of lip balms. For these patients, I usually recommend pure Vaseline petroleum jelly, or even pure coconut oil. But I always caution my patients to be careful, because the Vaseline petroleum jelly sold in the checkout aisle, for example, usually has added flavorings.
Sometimes even other flavorings can trigger reactions, such as the ones used in mints, mouthwash, chewing gum, or toothpaste.
The flavorings in lip care products that can trigger allergic reactions are also related to certain foods. And for patients who don't improve after changing their products, we may recommend avoiding these foods. These foods are related to a substance called Balsam of Peru, and they include foods such as tomatoes, citrus, and cinnamon.
If you'd like more information, this handout has more details: http://www.doctorkatta.com/lip-allergic-contact-dermatitis *If you'd like future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.