The skin may be the most unique organ in the human body, and the skin on your lips is pretty unique in and of itself.
Most of the skin on your face has around 16 opaque layers of cells, both dead and alive. Your lips, on the other hand, have just three layers of skin and are actually translucent. The lips get their characteristic reddish color from the subsurface layer, the mucous membrane (which also gives lips their pout). The capillaries packed into the mucous membrane layer of your lips push close to the skin on the surface of your lips, revealing the blood within [source: Lip Augmentation]. Push your lips tight together in a mirror and then release the pressure. They go from a light skin color back to red again as the blood returns to the capillaries.
Your lips are among the most expressive parts of your body. Thin, drawn lips display sternness. Lips pulled up into a smile show happiness and warmth. Biting your lip is coy and playful.
You may want to be careful with using that last expression too much. Lip biting contributes to dry, cracked lips -- an expressiveness you want to avoid. Dry lips aren't nearly as attractive as moist, healthy lips. They can also be painful. So, aside from not biting your lips, what are some other ways to prevent dry lips?
Because your lips are comparatively thin, they're also more exposed to damage from seemingly innocuous activities. Case in point: licking your lips.
It makes sense that licking your lips should moisturize them, and it does -- for a moment. As the saliva your tongue delivers to your lips dries, it evaporates, carrying with it the natural moisture found within your lips. What's more, your saliva is composed partly of enzymes that are designed to initiate the process of breaking food down for digestion [source: Gardner]. What works on food also works on the skin of your lips; two digestive enzymes found in saliva, amylase and maltase, can actually degrade the skin. This leaves the already thin skin of the lips further exposed, creating even drier lips.
Dehydration often plays a big role in dry lips. Ensuring that you drink enough water on a daily basis can help keep your lips from getting dry in the first place. As our bodies dehydrate, cells of all varieties -- including skin cells like those that compose the lips -- dry out. Replenishing your body with water rehydrates those cells and maintaining a steady intake of water can prevent your lips from drying out in the first place.
So how much water should you drink? The most widely cited rule of thumb is eight, eight-ounce glasses per day. We should note, however, that one 2002 study found no scientific basis for this suggested intake [source: Valtin]. The same paper also didn't find that amount would harm a healthy adult either, though.
On the same token, keeping your environment hydrated can help prevent your lips from drying. Try sleeping with a humidifier in your bedroom.
There are long-standing rumors that some lip balms (Carmex in particular) are addictive or actually dry lips out. It turns out that these rumors are unfounded. The most commonly questioned ingredients found in some lip balms -- phenol, menthol and camphor -- don't actually dry lips out, in turn leading to repeated use and eventually addiction, as some suspect [source: Roach].
Really, just about any lip balm will keep your lips sufficiently moist. There are a few key ingredients you want to look for in a lip balm. Balms need a base, often petroleum, beeswax or other oil, which will provide a barrier to prevent moisture loss. Emollients like aloe or lanolin soften lips. Vitamins and nutrient-rich compounds are also often added to aid in tissue regeneration and protection.
You'll also want a balm that contains a level of sun protection -- at least SPF 15. Since your lips don't produce as much melanin as the rest of your skin, they need the extra protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most dermatologists also recommend applying petroleum jelly to your lips at night if you have severely dry lips.
If you wear lipstick, lip liner or lip gloss, there are some things you should avoid when selecting cosmetics. That is, you should avoid them if don't want your dry, cracked lips to draw eyes away from the rest of your face.
The main ingredient you want to watch out for is alcohol. Matte and long-lasting lipsticks usually contain types of alcohol, which tends to strip natural moisture away from your lips as it evaporates. Since alcohol is such an essential ingredient in lipstick, some manufacturers have begun to use alcohol derived from plants that act as emollients, like lanolin.
Other lipsticks and glosses are designed to double as lip balms and contain many of the same ingredients as a traditional lip balm, like beeswax or aloe. If you can find a lipstick that also contains a SPF of 15 or more, you're all set.
It's generally not a good idea to slather strong dermatological medications directly onto your lips. Remember that your lips are thin and tender, and need protecting.
You may find yourself in a situation where you'll need to apply topical medications, like an anti-acne cream or a cold sore remedy. You may also use facial peels and masks and anti-aging formulas to reduce wrinkles or exfoliate your skin. All of these common products (unlike lip balms) contain drying agents and chemicals designed to remove the top layer of dead skin, or to dry out acne or cold sores.
While you're not applying these formulas directly, they do have a way of traveling to your lips, where they can cause dryness. The best offense is a good defense -- before applying a facial mask or cold sore medication, provide a barrier of protection to your lips. Use something like petroleum jelly or a thick lip balm as the barrier, and you're good to go.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Cutler, Nicole L. Ac. "9 tips for chapped lips." Massage Therapy Archives. January 5, 2007.http://www.integrative-healthcare.org/mt/archives/2007/01/nine_tips_for.html
- Dartmouth Medical School. "'Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day' - really?" August 8, 2002.http://dms.dartmouth.edu/news/2002_h2/08aug2002_water.shtml
- Gardner, Amanda. "Dry lips won't take a licking." HealthDayNews. December 27, 2003.http://www.medicineonline.com/news/10/3352/Dry-Lips-Won-t-Take-a-Licking.html
- Lip Augmentation. "Lip anatomy." Accessed September 10, 2009.http://www.lipaugmentation.com/anatomy.htm
- Lip Augmentation. "Lip care and maintenance: upkeep and care for beautiful lips." Accessed September 10, 2009.http://www.lipaugmentation.com/maintenance.htm
- Marie-Claire. "Preventing chapped lips." Accessed September 10, 2009.http://www.marieclaire.com/hair-beauty/how-to/tips/chapped-lips
- Roach, Mary. "Lip balm anonymous." Salon. April 23, 1999.http://www.salon.com/health/col/roac/1999/04/23/lip_balm/print.html