Why Your Lips Are Chapped and How to Fix It

Not all lip balm is actually protecting your lips. petrunjela/Shutterstock

In winter, everything feels dry and flaky, including your lips. You probably constantly slather on lip balm, hoping to keep your lips from becoming chapped. But you might feel like you're fighting a losing battle and your lips just feel even drier. It's not your imagination: Some lip balms can make chapped lips even worse.

That doesn't mean you should give up and just let your lips be flaky. Instead, here's what to look for when buying lip products, as well as some other tips to keep your lips moisturized all year long.

Read the label

Specific ingredients in lip balms can be particularly irritating or drying, particularly if you overuse them. Some culprits include:

Salicylic acid — Often used on the skin to slough off dead skin cells, it can cause problems on the lips. "Ingredients like salicylic acid can exfoliate dead cells from the surface of the lips, but can also cause skin irritation, leading to inflammation and dryness," dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells Refinery29.

Menthol and camphor — You know that pleasant, tingling feeling you get when you apply some lip balms? It can be caused by ingredients like menthol and camphor and it's not actually a good thing, says Cleveland Clinic dermatologist Melissa Piliang. "They either cause irritation or remove outer layers of the skin. They're an exfoliant. Then you have less protection, and you're more susceptible to environmental factors, so you have to apply more product. Avoid lip balms that contain those ingredients."

Phenol — This antimicrobial agent is added to some cosmetics to slow the growth of bacteria. But not only can phenols make the lips drier, if absorbed by the body in large amounts they can be linked to liver damage.

Scents and added flavoring — Yum, peppermint, with maybe a slight tinge of pink. But what might taste or look good isn't so great for your lips. "The chemicals in scents and added flavorings can irritate your skin or cause allergies," Piliang says. They can also dry out your lips and make them feel more chapped.

The best lip balms

woman applying lip balm
When choosing a lip balm, look at the ingredients carefully and buy a product with SPF. Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

When choosing a lip balm, many dermatologists recommend simple products. Try plain petroleum jelly or products with ingredients like glycerin or shea butter.

What you really want is the perfect combination of humectants and occlusives. Typically, humectants draw moisture to the skin, but acting alone on lips, they can pull moisture out of the skin and then it evaporates. That's why they have to work in tandem with occlusives, which prevent water loss.

"Humectants hold on to water, and occlusives keep it from evaporating," dermatologist Leslie Baumann tells StyleCaster. So, look for products that contain both. They don't have to cost a lot; Baumann recommends Burt's Bees Lip Balm ($3.30) for what she calls its ideal balance of occlusives and humectants.

In addition, find a product that has an SPF of at least 30 to keep lips protected year-round from the sun.

How to make your own lip balm

If you really want to know what you're slathering on your lips, go the DIY route. Pick up just a few simple ingredients and find an easy step-by-step recipe. The video above from Aja Dang only uses four ingredients (beeswax, coconut oil, almond oil and essential oils) and takes 30 minutes or less to make.

Nisa from Skinny Recipes also has a how-to video for all-natural lip balm that takes just a few minutes. Her recipe is simple:

  • 1 teaspoon grated beeswax
  • 1 teaspoon shea butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon virgin coconut oil
  • 5 drops essential oil
  • 1 vitamin E tablet

Melt the beeswax, butter and coconut oil in a small bowl standing inside a bowl of hot water. Mix in the essential oil and vitamin E, then pour into a small container and allow to cool.

How to prevent and heal chapped lips

woman with scarf covering face
Covering up your face and mouth can help keep lips (and skin) from drying out. Phovoir/Shutterstock

Like anything, prevention is key. If your lips are just starting to chap, take steps to keep cracked lips from getting worse:

Don't lick your lips. Saliva moistens your lips, but just for a second. As soon as they dry, your lips will dry out even more, points out WebMD.

Drink plenty of water. Drinking water can stave off dehydration which can contribute to chapped lips.

Cover up when outside. Cold air can dry your lips, so cover up with a scarf when you're out in the elements, suggests Healthline.

Try a humidifier. Heated indoor air is dry and can dry out your lips, along with your skin. Using a humidifier might help moisturize your skin and your lips.

Don't pick your lips. It's tempting to peel off those little flakes, but lips are sensitive and that can lead to an infection or bleeding.

woman with sugar scrub on lips
A gentle sugar scrub can help exfoliate lips and get rid of flaking skin. LightField Studios/Shutterstock

If your lips are too far gone and are already a peeling, flaky mess, try these steps:

Use a lip moisturizer. Try petroleum jelly, coconut oil, cocoa butter or even a thick body lotion, especially when going to bed.

Consider exfoliating. Dermatologists are divided on whether exfoliating lips is a good idea. Roughly exfoliating lips can do more harm than good. If you decide to slough off flaking skin, use a gentle sugar scrub, followed with moisturizer.

See a doctor. If chapped lips are persistent and aren't getting better, see a dermatologist to make sure there's no underlying infection or other problem.