Is Your Lip Balm Making Your Chapped Lips Worse? This Could Be Why
To combat the winter chap, a good lip balm is a must. But if you find yourself swiping on balms to no avail, you're not alone—there's a pervasive argument online that lip balms can actually make your lips drier (cue the gasps).
Some call it the "lip balm addiction": You dab on a lip treatment, only to find your pout more chapped and flaky than before, so you apply again, and again, and again—and the merciless cycle continues. You may think: Am I just making my chapped lips worse?
It's not you—but it may be your lip balm.
Why some lip balms make your lips feel drier.
In short, your formula might feature a few culprits:
They contain irritating ingredients.
Some balms may include cooling, plumping, or exfoliating players to add to the sensorial experience in the short term, but some of these ingredients can actually make chapped lips more apparent. "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 board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., about healing lip cracks. Similarly, watch out for salicylic acid in your formulas: "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," she continues.
In terms of lip plumpers, many formulas rely on spicy, heat-inducing essential oils (like cinnamon oil) to stimulate your blood vessels and cause them to expand, which results in a "swollen" appearance and, thus, a plumper pout. But these potent oils can also cause irritation on the delicate lip area, sometimes even contact dermatitis for those with sensitive skin. So you might be better off opting for a plumper that calls on hyaluronic acid instead—the ingredient can pull in up to 1,000 times its weight in water, which helps your parched lips become plump with moisture (think of how you might run a dry sponge under water and watch it rise with hydration).
They only include humectants.
Humectants (like the aforementioned hyaluronic acid) are water-loving and top-notch for achieving that firmness and bounce. Careful, though: Relying only on humectants can backfire. "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," King says about healing lip cracks.
Essentially, they can pull water from the deeper layers of the dermis into the outermost layer—and without any occlusives to trap in the moisture, the water can easily evaporate on that top layer of skin, which can leave your lips drier than they were before.
They contain mineral oil.
Mineral oil is a common ingredient in traditional lip products—specifically those thick, jelly balms commonly used for slugging techniques. That's because mineral oil is highly occlusive, so it locks in moisture. But purified, cosmetic-grade mineral oil is not without its issues: Aside from the fact that it's petrochemical-derived and not environmentally friendly, mineral oil has a very large molecular size, so it's unable to actually penetrate the skin.
"It more suffocates the skin than anything else," says board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D., founder of SKINFIVE. "The molecular structure is simply too large so it can both clog pores, cause a disruption or even damage to the skin barrier, and ultimately increase transepidermal water loss."
What to do about it.
To truly deliver much-needed moisture, make sure your lip balm has an array of humectants, emollients, and occlusives—this combination of ingredients can pull in water, build up the skin barrier, and trap in all that precious moisture.
For example, mindbodygreen's lip balm includes sodium hyaluronate—a salt form of hyaluronic acid that has a lower molecular weight, so it can penetrate deeper into the skin and provide a subtle plumping effect, sans irritation; shea and cocoa seed butters to fill in and soothe microcracks; and moringa seed oil and sunflower seed wax to further nourish and provide a protective barrier over the skin.
We also would suggest steering clear of mineral oil, given its environmental concerns and the mere argument that the sort of things you put on your skin should be beneficial; you can simply find better ingredients to actively replenish the skin barrier with healthy lipids and antioxidants (read moringa seed oil, shea butter, etc.), as opposed to one that just sits atop it to keep water locked in.
A good lip balm doesn't necessarily need anything fancy—just a blend of high-quality hydrators to soothe your lips and coat them in moisture, like mbg's conditioning formula. You may still find yourself reapplying, not because your lips are begging for a swipe of moisture but because the smooth, satin-like finish is just that good.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.