Eczema is a common skin condition in which the skin barrier doesn't function properly, resulting in flare-ups of itchy rashes, red spots, blisters, and cracked skin. While it most commonly occurs on the body, eczema—or various versions of it—can also show up on your lips.
Lip eczema is more severe than your average case of chapped lips in the wintertime, but how can you tell the difference? Here, we're breaking down what you need to know about inflammation on the lips, aka lip eczema, including the signs to look out for, the different types of lip eczema, and how to treat it at home (it's generally easy to do so).
Signs you might have lip eczema.
"Lip eczema is characterized by dry, chapped, and peeling lips and sometimes, painful breaks of the lips," explains board-certified dermatologist Charlotte Birnbaum, M.D. In other words, the same common symptoms of eczema—red patches, cracked skin, flaking, and general dryness—also hold true for the lip area.
So, how to tell if it's just chapped lips or something more serious, such as lip eczema? If the skin on the lips becomes significantly cracked to the point of becoming painful, and if no amount of over-the-counter ointments (such as oils, butters, and waxes) seems to help, then you might be dealing with a case of eczema.
Types of lip eczema.
The word "cheilitis" is science-speak for inflammation of the lips, which can present itself in a few different forms:
- Dry skin types: If you generally have dry skin head-to-toe, this may also extend to your lips—in which case, you may just be experiencing common dry lips.
- Angular cheilitis: This type of lip inflammation, which is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection1, typically manifests itself in the outer corners of the mouth. It can be caused by too much saliva buildup in these areas, such as from excessively licking the lips or having braces.
- Irritant contact cheilitis: This form of lip eczema is brought on by an outside factor—most commonly the overuse of cosmetic products or oral hygiene products2—which causes skin irritation.
- Allergic contact cheilitis: As its name implies, this form of lip inflammation is caused by an allergic reaction3, which can happen in response to just about anything that comes into contact with your lips, be it cosmetics or skin care products, medication, or even food.
Common causes of lip eczema.
"Many factors can play a role in lip eczema," Birnbaum explains. "If you have eczema elsewhere on your body, your lips can be an extension of that condition, in which your skin barrier is defective." However, you don't have to have eczema anywhere else on your body in order for it to show up on your lips. Sometimes, "lip eczema can be caused or worsened by lip licking," Birnbaum says. "Patients with lip eczema try to moisten their lips by licking them, but it turns out this actually makes things worse, as saliva is very irritating."
Cold, dry climates can also exacerbate the symptoms of lip eczema by pulling even more moisture from the thin skin on the lips (second to the undereye area, the lips are the thinnest skin on your entire face).
Finally, other common causes of lip eczema include the overuse of lip balm that contains irritating or allergen-inducing ingredients, most commonly artificial ingredients or synthetic fragrance. Board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D., notes that many ingredients found in toothpaste can have this effect. Or, another sneaky culprit, according to board-certified doctor Alan Dattner, M.D., is traditional nail polishes: The irritating ingredients can trigger contact dermatitis when we touch sensitive areas like our eyes and lips.
Best remedies for lip eczema.
Fortunately, with the right know-how, most cases of lip eczema can be easily and quickly addressed with over-the-counter ointments. But don't just reach for the first option you see.
"The best way to treat and prevent chapped lips is to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize," Birnbaum says. "However, it is important to choose your lip moisturizer wisely, as some can include allergenic ingredients that can make lip eczema worse."
Instead, Birnbaum recommends seeking out a thick ointment that will help prevent water loss from the skin—the main cause of all forms of eczema, as this happens when the skin barrier becomes weakened or broken. What's even better: The shorter the ingredient list, the better, as this minimizes the risk for irritation or an allergic reaction. See our list of safe, natural lip balms here, or consider looking for a hydrating ingredient in your kitchen.
If that still doesn't alleviate your painful pout, your best bet, as always, is to book an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist.
The bottom line.
If you've ever had a case of severe dry lips that just didn't seem to go away, it might have been eczema. Luckily it's a fairly easy condition to treat at home with hydrating, non-irritating natural ingredients.
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.