They help you eat, speak, whistle and kiss, but how well do you know your lips? Do you know they're sensitive and thin-skinned? It's not a slight; it's just a fact of our anatomy.
Our skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis, the dermis and a subcutaneous fat layer. The stratum corneum tops the epidermis as a protective layer (against bacteria, moisture loss, heat and light), but the skin on our lips is much thinner than the skin covering most of our body -- in fact, on our lips this protective layer is four to five times thinner compared than the skin on our face [source: Chan]. And because there are no sweat glands or hair follicles on our lips, they don't get the same kind of natural protection that skin on other areas of our body does.
So, treating dry, chapped lips can be tricky. They're vulnerable to the elements, as well as to our own bad habits. Keeping them soft and smooth may seem like a constant battle, but we have 10 tips to help keep your pout pretty and plump.
Avoid the Elements
One strategy for beating dry lips is to avoid common environmental triggers. It might not always be possible for you to stay inside on bright, cold or windy days, but it sure can help. Dry air robs you of any spare moisture you've got, and compared with the rest of your skin, lips are particularly vulnerable. The sun is another key player in the drama -- without a good supply of melanin, lips are especially susceptible to the sun's powerful rays and subsequent sunburns.
Abusive weather's a real bully, so if you do choose to go outside, protect yourself. No need to leave your lips out in the cold. For example, you can wrap a scarf around your face to block the wind or wear a wide-brimmed hat to keep off the sun -- whatever it takes to shield your lips from extreme exposure.
Balms: Serious Lip Service
What anti-dry lip arsenal would be complete without a lip balm of some sort? Lip balms can bring a smile to even the sorest dry lips; they build a barrier between your lips' mucus membranes and the outside world, helping lock must-have moisture in.
Remember to apply just a thin coat of lip balm -- don't gob it on, because that might tempt you to lick off the excess and we already learned why that was a bad idea. Also, it's important to get a lip balm of at least SPF 15. Lips are very sensitive to the sun, so they need lots of protection from it. Otherwise, chapping can just get worse.
Use the Right Kind of Lip Balm
So, you need balm, but what kind? If you think flavor is the only difference among the many lip care products on the market, you're mistaken. In fact, certain ingredients in some balms might actually be sabotaging your hydrating efforts -- and it's probably not the berry flavoring.
Some popular lip balms contain ingredients such as phenols or peppermint oil that help exfoliate the chapped flakes of skin from our lips. While these ingredients are great for helping to slough off dry skin, they aren't very good at hydrating. As they encourage exfoliation, they remove the natural oils from the lips, and what happens next? You reach for more lip balm because your lips feel dry, despite the fact that you just used balm. And the cycle begins. You may then think you must be developing a lip balm addiction (it's not an addiction; it really is just a habit). Moisturizing lip balms help battle dry lips because they won't add to the dryness.
Choose the most emollient balm you can find -- look for ingredients such as petrolatum, beeswax, shea butter, cocoa butter, or oils such as almond or jojoba to help lock in moisture and soften and protect lips. For seriously dry lips, look for a balm that contains synthetic ceramides, which are fats that can help restore your lips' natural skin barrier. And for the best protection, choose an oil-based balm that also contains a sunscreen.
Stop Licking Your Chops
Licking your lips may seem like an easy way to moisten things up, but it actually does more harm than good. Lips usually lack the protective outer membrane found on most other skin, so adding moisture that easily evaporates seconds later creates a vicious cycle that can dry lips out very quickly.
There's another dark side to lip licking -- saliva, despite its clear, watery appearance, is not akin to pure mountain spring water. Along with teeth, saliva is one of the first mechanisms in the digestive process and it contains enzymes that begin to break up food. Those same enzymes, while so helpful when you want to chow down on a big, juicy burger, unfortunately have a similar effect on the lips: They get a jump-start on digesting them. Biting is no good either, it can damage and weaken tender lips.
Avoid These Ingredients
Did you know that ingredients in some of the products you use every day may be contributing to your chapped lips? We're looking at you, toothpaste.
Toothpastes and other oral care products may contain sodium lauryl sulfate (an ingredient that is added to products that are sudsy, from toothpaste to facial cleansers to shampoo) as well as guaiazulene (a color additive), both associated with skin irritation and dermatitis in some people. And lip balms themselves may also contain potential irritants. In fact, about 25 percent of people tested for skin problems, rashes and allergic reactions around the mouth tested positive for an allergy to ingredients common in lip balms, lipsticks and other cosmetics [source: Castelo-Soccio]. If you're concerned about allergens, keep an eye out for phenyl salicylate (salol) or propyl gallate, two ingredients that may cause contact allergies and could be hiding in your lip care products and lipstick.
Allergies and sensitivities can happen with non-synthetic and plant ingredients, too. If you have eczema, for example, the emollient lanolin can aggravate the condition. Fragrances and flavors added to lipsticks and lip balms may also trigger skin allergies -- and that includes menthol, cinnamon, citrus and mint.
Don't Be a Mouth Breather
Mouth breathing is another no-no, for similar reasons to the ones that make lip licking a bad idea. Any moisture that manages to make it to your lips will quickly be whisked away if you constantly blow air across them.
So keep your mouth shut and let your nose take the reins -- that's one of the reasons it's there, after all. If you're still not sold on the idea, consider that your nose filters impurities out of incoming air and turns the air warm and moist, which makes it easier for the lungs to process it. Breathing through your mouth can also lead to things like dry mouth, sleep apnea and bad breath.
Exfoliate Your Kisser
You may already be exfoliating your face or body a few times a week or month for the skin-smoothing benefits, but are you treating your lips to the same?
Exfoliating removes the flaky, dry skin that can build up on chapped lips, revealing smoother, softer skin underneath. There are a few ways you can go about lip exfoliation. Gently rub your lips with a dampened soft washcloth or toothbrush, or use a lip scrub to remove dead skin. Some lip balms can also help with exfoliation. Phenol, a common ingredient in balms, is an antiseptic, which means it kills germs, but it also helps slough off any old, dry skin on the lips. Salicylic acid is also an exfoliant, commonly found in skin care lotions and cleansers, but also found in some lip balms. Also look for lip balms that contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). AHAs help exfoliate and also help to retain moisture in your skin.
Wet Your Whistle
We've mentioned moisture a couple of times now, and how easy it is for lips to lose it, so let's go ahead and talk about how lips can get some of that lost moisture back. The best way is for you to stay hydrated. That means drinking lots of water -- generally about eight glasses a day -- to keep you moisture levels balanced. Remember: If you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated.
Sometimes however, especially on cold wintery days, drinking water isn't enough to stave off dry lips. Heated indoor air can get really dry, too, so it's a good idea to set up a humidifier. Maintaining a 30 to 40 percent indoor humidity level during the winter months will help keep you comfortable in your skin, and putting moisture back into the air mechanically can help rejuvenate even the driest lips.
Take Your Vitamins
Drinking enough water will ensure that your lips get moisture from the inside out, but sometimes, chapped, dry or cracked lips are actually a result of a vitamin deficiency. All of the B complex vitamins contribute to your skin's health, but some key players, such as niacin (vitamin B3) and riboflavin (vitamin B2) really boost your skin's ability to retain moisture.
Green vegetables such as spinach, Swiss chard, green beans and collard greens are fantastic sources of niacin, and riboflavin is readily available in dairy foods and almonds. For optimal skin (and thus lip) health, you should, of course, eat a balanced diet. But if you sometimes struggle to get all your fruit and vegetable servings each day, it's a good idea to supplement with a multivitamin.
When All Else Fails, See a Doctor
If you can't seem to cure your cracked kisser, it wouldn't hurt to pay a visit to your primary doctor, dermatologist or dentist to help figure out the cause of that chronic chapping.
Your doctor will look at many possibilities, and narrowing down the cause may require testing you for allergies, including those to metals, dyes and other common skin and lip care ingredients. There could be tests for vitamin deficiencies. Your doctor will also be able to diagnose any underlying problems that may be causing or contributing to dry lips or lip irritation, such as precancerous conditions, thyroid disease or an autoimmune disorder or medicines that may cause dryness as a side effect.
Millennials are crazy about lip fillers, and it seems we have Kylie Jenner to thank. HowStuffWorks fills you in on lip fillers.
More Great Links
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- Baker, Mary Zoe. "Riboflavin Deficiency." Medscape Reference. 2011. (Mar. 2, 2012) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/125193-overview#showall
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- Castelo-Soccio, Leslie; Militello, Giuseppe; Crawford, Glen; Brod, Bruce; and Thomas Sollecito. "Oral Mucositis: A Case Series and Review of the Literature from the Perspective of a Referral Patch Test Clinic." 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Contact Dermatitis Society. 2007. (Mar. 2, 2012) http://www.contactderm.org/files/public/2007Abstracts.pdf
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- Van Boven, Sarah. "How to Treat Chapped Lips: An Interview With Audrey Kunin." Allure. 2010. (Mar. 2, 2012) http://www.allure.com/beauty-trends/how-to/2010/treat_chapped_lips
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