Along with the season of peppermint mocha lattes and Ugg boots comes a decidedly more annoying winter visitor: chapped lips.
Why does this happen every winter like clockwork, and what can you really do to prevent and treat it? Your lips don’t produce oil, making them naturally drier than other skin on your face and body. They’re also constantly exposed to the environment (like the sun and wind), making them more likely to get irritated. And when humidity drops and the freezing winds start up, your lips are extra-vulnerable to becoming cracked and dry.
However, it should be noted that cold weather isn’t the only cause of chapped lips, says Arielle Kauvar, MD, director of New York Laser & Skin Care. Conditions that cause chronic chapped lips include hypothyroidism and Sjogrens syndome, an auto-immune disease that slows saliva production. Skin allergies to a product you’re using on the lip area—like contact dermatitis from red dyes, nickel, or cinnamates—can also cause chapped lips. Medication side effects from drugs like Accutane and propranolol are known to dry out lips, and braces and snoring can also cause chronic dryness due to mouth breathing overnight, explains Kauvar. If your chapped lips don’t respond to any treatments and you think any of these factors may be at play, see your doctor.
We asked two top New York City dermatologists for a winning plan—and we promise, it doesn’t include that kinda-gross tip about exfoliating your lips with a toothbrush:
When lips get dry, a lot of people instinctively lick them in search of soothing. While your saliva does moisten your lips for relief on contact, the skin will actually get drier afterward. This can easily create a never-ending chapped-lip cycle that many aren’t even conscious of, says New York City dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. If it’s a habit because your lips always feel dry, use a thicker lip balm with an ingredient like lanolin that stays longer than traditional balms. If licking your lips is more of a stress habit for you—which can be common, like biting your nails—try sucking on a piece of hard candy instead. And avoid artificial flavors and sweeteners, which makes people lick their lips more, says Jaliman.
Most people go out in the freezing cold with their hands, necks, and feet bundled up—so imagine what that frosty wind does to the most delicate part of the face—the lips—when it’s left exposed. Jaliman says to protect your pucker with a generous layer of lip balm anytime you head out the door. Look for formulas with wheat-germ oil, almond oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil, aloe vera, shea butter, sunflower oil, or cottonseed oil to truly moisturize lips, says Jaliman. Kauvar likes beeswax formulas, too. And don’t worry about that old wive’s tale that you can get addicted to the stuff. There’s no such thing as being “under the influence” of lip balm—people just feel the need to reapply it since it feels good, says Jaliman.
Forced heat at home zaps moisture levels in the air that help keep your skin and lips self-hydrating. While a humidity level of between 30-40% is most comfortable for your skin and lips to naturally stay moisturized, levels can easily dip closer to 10% when indoor heat is continuously pumping. Using a humidifier at home—especially overnight while you sleep—will help keep lips more hydrated, says Jaliman.
4. Change your lip color routine
In the winter, you’ll want to avoid long-lasting and matte lipstick formulas because both will dry out already-dry lips, says Jaliman. Opt for a lipgloss instead, or use a lip liner to line and fill your lips, and then cover with a generous application of balm for your own custom lip treatment. Any lip color that is heavily fragranced should be avoided as well, since fragrance is very drying, says Jaliman.
It’s not necessary to buy any lip-exfoliating scrubs, says Jaliman, as your lips exfoliate naturally. Some scrubs can even be too abrasive for the delicate lip area, and can make a bad situation worse. If your lips are in real bad shape and flaking continuously, Jaliman recommends using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment for a few days. Stop use once lips improve.
Several popular lip-balm ingredients aren’t really doing you any favors. Camphor, phenol, and menthol should be avoided, as they irritate and dry the lips out. You’ll see some of these ingredients in lip-plumping products because that irritation can cause inflammation in lips, leading to the fuller pout—but at the cost of hydration.