How To Deal With Dry, Cracked Lips That Won't Go Away — Once & For All
Dry, cracked lips always—and I mean always—come up as some of the top skin care concerns come winter. And the thing is, there are levels of severity with dry pouts: Some of us just have a bit more flaking around the edges (in which case a new, thicker lip balm may be the answer), or others deal with increased chapped texture (but are usually put at ease with this easy layering technique).
But then there are cracked, painful lips. You know, the level of dryness that causes breaks in the skin, peeling, and even injury? Once you've crossed over into that territory? Well, you likely know it feels like nothing will actually help the skin get back to normal.
"The skin of the lips is thin and delicate, and it does not contain oil glands like the rest of the skin, so this makes it particularly prone to drying out," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. "This gets exacerbated during the winter because the humidity in the air decreases, so more moisture evaporates from the skin into the air. And exposure to wind makes this worse as well."
So here's a tip: Once you're experiencing this level of lip dehydration, it's time to stop treating it like it's "just dryness" and start treating it like a wound. Yes, I understand that sounds dramatic, but when the skin on your lip actually breaks? Well, it's exactly what it is!
A 7-step guide to healing painful cracked lips that won't go away.
OK, so you've made the mental shift. You're now ready to treat your lip area with the care and precision and kindness it deserves. Uh, now what? Well, you tend to the area with skin-healing ingredients and then keep it protected with thick, thick, thick occlusives—plus a few other protective measures:
- Treat the area with ingredients that are specialized in wound healing and barrier support. When your skin is peeling and cracking, you're going to need actives that can treat the barrier—helping build the skin back up. Look for things like ceramides, squalane, fatty acids, oat, and actives that are known to speed up wound healing, like vitamin K.
- Hydrate frequently with emollients—not humectants. Emollients, like the ceramides and fatty acids above, help support the skin and nurture the barrier. They are essential for skin that is compromised. Less so? Humectants. Humectants certainly have a time and place in skin care—they are excellent at attracting and holding water—just do not use them as your sole moisturizer, especially in the lip area. "Lip balms that contain only humectant ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, can actually make lips more dry because they attract moisture, and if the air is very low in humidity, then they can pull moisture out of the skin, and then the moisture evaporates away," says King.
- Cover the area with the thickest occlusives you can find. Occlusives, meaning ingredients that coat the skin creating a seal, will then act as your bandage, per se. (Remember our new "wound-healing" mindset?) "I typically recommend an occlusive ointment that forms a physical barrier over the skin," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. "It creates a seal between your lips and the environment, allowing the skin to heal and preventing loss of hydration. It also protects the skin from exposure to bacteria, which can lead to infections." Look for waxes, certain oils, lanolin, and clarified petroleum (if you are OK with using petrochemicals).
- Avoid these common and very drying ingredients. Often, ingredients are added to balms for a sensorial effect, but they do little for those who are dealing with serious chaps. "Also avoid menthol, camphor, and phenol as ingredients in lip balms because they can dry out the lips. They are initially cooling and soothing, but they evaporate quickly, and you will need to reapply if you aren't using good emollients and occlusives," says King. "Any alcohol ingredient will also be drying to the lips. And salicylic acid can be irritating in a lip balm. It is sometimes added as an exfoliant—to help remove dry flaky skin from your lips, but the lips are sensitive, and repeated use will likely lead to irritation. Lip balms designed to plump the lips often contain cinnamon oil or peppermint oil, and these ingredients can also cause irritation."
- Create a physical barrier when outside. "Cover your mouth when outside in the elements," says King. "Cold air and wind will be particularly drying for the lips, so it is helpful to cover them with a scarf to protect them." Good news, folks: You should be wearing your mask anyway.
- You've heard this before, but here it is again: Stop licking your lips. I know this is so tempting to do, but you must stop this habit. The saliva temporarily adds a splash of moisture, but then it dries out on the surface, leading to worse conditions than before.
- Do not pick at your lips—yes, even the dead, dry patches. Picking is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes people make when they have severely cracked and chapped lips. In fact, you may think you're speeding up the process by lifting up dead patches of skin—but that skin actually is actually serving a purpose. "Don't overexfoliate, and don't pick or peel the skin. This delicate skin won't heal if the dry parts are continually picked off: The dead skin needs to stay on until the new skin underneath is ready to be exposed," says King. Eventually, those will flake off when your skin is ready—your skin has powerful regenerative properties, after all, so let it do its job. Your skin will not heal if you're picking at it, like a scab.
When your lips enter cracked territory, it's time to rethink your game plan. Irritated, painful, and broken skin should be thought of and mended like a wound (it's what it is, after all). So put in the extra work, give your lips some time, and you'll be back to normal soon.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.