Discover the surprising causes and simple fixes.
The fact that chapped lips are common doesn’t make them any less annoying when they happen to you. Sometimes, it’s obvious what’s causing them, like you forgot to put lip balm in with your beach gear and were licking your lips all day. Other times, what’s causing the irritation isn’t so obvious.
It’s true that severe vitamin deficiencies (iron and B vitamins) can cause chapped lips, but those kinds of deficiencies are rare in developed nations, so it’s more likely that there’s something else at the root of your chapped lips issue.
Finding what’s causing them to chap is worth doing—it’s the first step in restoring moisture and comfort. (There are other steps to getting your lips—even if they’re peeling, flaking, and cracked—back to normal again, too.)
Here, find the most common causes of chapped lips, and what to do about them.
Extreme temperatures and weather
Heat, as well as extreme cold and dry air can make lips (and skin) extremely irritated, says dermatologist and MH advisor Corey L. Hartman, M.D. Exposed lips can also get sunburned (assuming you’re somewhere by yourself and they’re out of your mask long enough for your lips to see the light). In this case, they often peel and feel dry.
If you have racked up lots of sun damage in your life (maybe you surf, lifeguard, or have another type of outdoor job), you may also be vulnerable to actinic cheilitis, explains dermatologist Evan Rieder, M.D., at NYU Langone Health. It tends to show up in older people after years of high-intensity sun exposure, and often on the lower lip. “Actinic cheilitis is essentially precancerous damage to the lips and should be treated by a dermatologist to prevent the progression to squamous cell cancer,” he says.
Salty and spicy foods
So this is one of those interesting “causes” of chapped lips that might not directly be a cause. “Anecdotally, salty and spicy foods have been reported to cause cheilitis, but this really hasn’t been substantiated in the literature,” says Dr. Rieder. More likely, what’s happening is that you lick your lips more after eating these foods. “Salivary glands contain digestive enzymes that might irritate the lips, while moisture evaporating from saliva exacerbates this,” he adds.
“Cholesterol medications are notorious for affecting oil production,” says Dr. Hartman. That means less moisture stays locked in your lips. And more of a chance you’ll get that dry sandpapery feeling and some chapping. Medications for the treatment and prevention of HIV can also leave lips chapped. (See below for what to do about lips when they chap.)
Things you put on or next to your lips
Ironically, some ingredients in lip balms can cause contact dermatitis and leave your lips irritated. Not everyone responds to the same ingredients in the same way. Irritation from lip or facial products can come from fragrances, metal additives, and preservatives. “I don’t recommend that people avoid certain ingredients, as there are so many possible irritants and allergens,” says Dr. Rieder. “Rather, I send people for patch testing to see which ingredients they’re allergic to. This can give much more reliable information.”
Another product that can leave lips irritated: toothpaste. If your lips just started bothering you and you recently changed toothpastes, that could be the cause.
What to do about chapped lips
If there’s extreme cracking of the lips and bacteria has set in (there’s an infection), you might need a steroid ointment or antibiotic. No matter what, you need to check with a doc.
For more common chapped lips, the key is to seal in the moisture that’s left in your lips. “A good hyaluronic acid serum used first is a good idea,” says Dr. Hartman. “Then follow with Aquaphor.” Or, use a lip balm or ointment that contains sunscreen. (Check out our top lip balms for men.) And a little patience. Your lips will heal with time, just keep sealing in the moisture and avoiding irritants.
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