Lips get dry all the time; in fact, they were practically made for it. They lack the oil and sweat glands that are two of the main moisture providers and retainers in ordinary skin. Throw in some other factors such as dry winter air or a touch of dehydration and bam -- dry lips become your bane.
For many people, that's where the problem ends. Throw on some lip balm, stay out of the cold, drink more water, and dry lip woes pretty much come to a close. For others, however, these tame measures aren't enough and the situation worsens until dry lips become cracked and peeling.
So beyond the general tips available for people with dry lips, let's take a look at some of the more serious advice for those whose problems have grown a bit worse.
Licking your lips is bad for two reasons. First off, while you may feel like it wets them down and tosses them some much needed moisture, that's not the case. Lips either have an extremely thin or entirely absent protective outer layer, which makes them particularly vulnerable to liquid loss. So saliva evaporates from lips very quickly -- quicker than it would if, say, you felt like licking your arm -- and that can leave your lips feeling drier and worse off than they already were.
The second reason is a little more dramatic. Saliva isn't as innocent as it looks. It's a key early component of your digestive system and it's packed with enzymes that specialize in breaking down foods. Unfortunately, gentle lips are also susceptible to this digestive action, and an overabundance of saliva can cause the skin on your lips to crack.
Not all lip balm is created equal. If your lips have passed from arid wasteland to full-fledged desert, you're going to need a balm that provides extra moisture protection. So don't just buy any old one you happen to see in the checkout aisle at the grocery store -- not that those products aren't what you're looking for -- but if your lips are severely damaged, you'll need to peruse the ingredients list before you can tell for sure.
Apart from an SPF of at least 15, beeswax, phenol and petroleum jelly are usually good ingredients to spot on the list. (If you see soft paraffin or petrolatum, those are basically synonymous with petroleum jelly.) If your lips are particularly painful, you may want to grab something that also has ingredients like camphor and menthol to help provide some relief.
Don't be afraid to reapply frequently, although sparingly is best -- otherwise you might be tempted to lick off any excess. Putting on lip balm before you go to bed can also be a good idea, especially if you tend to breathe through your mouth when you sleep.
If none of the regular advice is helping ease your chapped lips, it could be a nutritional deficiency. Take iron for one. Iron deficiency anemia, which occurs when you aren't getting enough iron in your diet, can lead to a whole host of bad news. Cracked lips are just one of the symptoms, along with fatigue, weakness, dizziness, irritability, headache, irregular heartbeat and difficulty concentrating, among others.
Some people may have a medical issue (such as one related to iron absorption) that they need to discuss with their doctor, but many just need to increase the iron in their diet or take an iron supplement. The supplements are best taken with some vitamin C pills, or a little OJ. When it comes to diet, a whole array of foods can help you up your iron intake. Lean red meats, dried beans and dried fruits are a few of the biggies, along with eggs (especially the yolks) and some seafood. Seeds, nuts, spinach, peas, broccoli, asparagus and whole grains are among the other foods you can try out.
Lots of things can cause a body to be deficient in B vitamins, but if you haven't been eating the best diet lately, it could just be you simply need to focus on increasing B-rich foods or start popping a B-complex supplement to boost your levels. Like iron, cracked lips can be a sign of low vitamin B12, for example. A lack of B12 can cause dizziness, rapid heart rate, fever, significant weight loss, tiredness, confusion, depression, appetite loss, poor digestion and an array of tactile malfunctions. Not pretty.
So either get some B-complex supplements, or do some exploring to discover what kinds of foods you could be missing out on. And if B vitamins and iron don't fix you right up, try adding other nutrients to your diet -- whether through foods or through supplements -- to see if you aren't running low on something else. For example, vitamin E liquid capsules can even double as a supplement-rich balm. Just pop one open and smooth it over stressed-out lips. If you're still having a significant problem, however, you may need to visit a doctor.
Sometimes it really does take a doctor to fix up sore lips. For example, if your lips are cracking on the sides of your mouth where your lips meet, this may be an issue -- especially if inflammation, redness, painful sores or constantly reopening fissures develop. Once you've tried supplements, stopped worrying at the cracks with your tongue and followed other sound lip advice, it could be time to dial up your doc.
Experts are still trying to determine exactly how the process goes, but this is one of the most likely scenarios. Factors like licking or rubbing the corners of the mouth, wearing a poorly fitted set of dentures, or dealing with a nutritional deficiency have all been suspected of kicking things off.
Then a fungal or bacterial infection that's been waiting in the wings can creep into the moist corners of the mouth and exacerbate the problem. Although, keep in mind that sometimes these symptoms can signal an even more serious medical situation. So while at times cracked lips can be treated by over-the-counter medications, supplements and lip treatments, at other times, a professional needs to be called in on the job. With a good diagnosis, lots of people can have healthy lips in no time.
For a bonanza of advice on other skin and beauty topics, travel over to the next page.
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- "A Balm for Cracked, Dry Lips." Current Health. January 2001. (8/31/2009) http://proxygsu-dep1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=3915912&site=ehost-live
- "Angular cheilitis." WebMD. May 25, 2007. (9/1/2009) http://www.webmd.com/hw-popup/angular-cheilitis
- Blistex Web site. (8/31/2009) http://www.blistex.com/
- "Cheilosis/Cheilitis." Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. Sept. 28, 2007. (9/1/2009) http://www.simplestepsdental.com/SS/ihtSS/r.WSIHW000/st.32219/t.32775/pr.3.html
- "Dermatologists' Top 10 Tips for Relieving Dry Skin." The American Academy of Dermatology. (8/31/2009) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/agingskinnet/winter_skin.html
- Ellis-Christensen, Tricia. "How Can I Relieve Chapped Lips?" WiseGeek.com. (9/1/2009) http://www.wisegeek.com/how-can-i-relieve-chapped-lips.htm
- Gibson, Lawrence. "Chapped Lips. What's the best remedy?" Mayo Clinic. Oct. 4, 2008. (8/31/2009) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/chapped-lips/AN01440
- "Iron Deficiency Anemia." WebMD. May 7, 2007. (9/1/2009) http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/iron-deficiency-anemia-topic-overview
- "Iron in diet." U.S. National Library of Medicine. March 9, 2009. (9/1/2009) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002422.htm
- Krishna, Dave. "Soothing Winter Skin." Pediatrics for Parents. 2003. (8/31/2009) http://proxygsu-dep1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=12525470&site=ehost-live
- "Lip and Mouth Care." American Academy of Dermatology. (8/31/2009) http://www.aad.org/members/media/_doc/Materials_Lip%20and%20Mouth%20Care.pdf
- "Oral Health Center." WebMD. Sept. 26, 2008. (8/31/2009) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/tc/mouth-problems-noninjury-home-treatment
- "Repair Ripped Lips." Men's Fitness. July 2003. (8/31/2009) http://proxygsu-dep1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=12602107&site=ehost-live
- Smith, S.E. "What is Petroleum Jelly?" WiseGeek.com. (9/1/2009) http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-petroleum-jelly.htm
- "Symptoms and Diagnosis of Angular Cheilitis." Angular Cheilitis Center. (9/1/2009) http://www.angular-cheilitis-center.com/
- Tatum, Malcolm. "What is Angular Stomatitis?" WiseGeek.com. (9/1/2009) http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-angular-stomatitis.htm
- Triffin, Molly. "Winter Beauty Woes -- Simple Solutions." Cosmopolitan. January 2008, (8/31/2009) http://proxygsu-dep1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=28753822&site=ehost-live
- "Vitamin B12 Deficiency." Langone Medical Center. November 2008. (9/1/2009) http://obgyn.med.nyu.edu/conditions-we-treat/conditions/vitamin-b12-deficiency#symptoms