Dry Lips Causes and Treatments, According to a Doctor

Kiss cracked and chapped lips goodbye with these expert-backed solutions.

Why Your Lips Are Dry
Stocksy.

One of the most uncomfortable feelings is having chapped, dry lips that feel like they're cracking. Worse, it may feel as if no amount of lip balm can fix or cure the dryness, peeling, or tight-lipped sensation. While your favorite lip balm might feel good in the moment and offer a shine that can be confused with moisture, these products don't address the root cause of dry, chapped lips. TBH, you might not have any clue what's causing those flakey, uncomfortable dry lips. Although annoying, chapped lips are really common and can occur for various reasons such as drying beauty products, extreme temperatures, and more.

So before you slather on more lip balm or attempt to peel the cracked skin off your lips, here's everything you need to know about what causes dry lips and how to treat and prevent chapping.

What Causes Dry Lips?

"Extremely dry lips can be caused by a multitude of things, such as weather, sun damage, humidity, dehydration, lip products, constant lip licking, and malnutrition," says Michele Koo, M.D., a board-certified plastic surgeon and founder of Dr. Koo Private Practice. Lip skin is some of the most sensitive skin on the body and is prone to dryness, "unlike the rest of our skin, lips don't have sweat glands, so they're not able to produce their own sweat and oil," says Nkem Ugonabo, M.D., NYC-based board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm, previously told Shape. Therefore, extra care is needed to help keep the lips moisturized and chap-free.

Extreme Temperatures

"Extreme temperatures, such as dry heat or frigid cold air, can dry out the skin on the lips and cause it to crack and peel," says Dr. Koo. In fact, environmental factors are one common cause of dry lips; for example, when the frigid winter temperatures hit, the humidity and moisture in the air decrease drastically, which causes the moisture in your skin to evaporate faster. Your lips tend to be one of the most unprotected areas on your face that are subject to those harsh cold winds and therefore will dry, crack, or peel faster than the rest of your skin.

Makeup

The ingredients in lip products and lipsticks, such as dye, fragrances, and perfume, are another common culprit in causing dry, chapped, or cracked lips, according to Dr. Koo. "You want to be sure [lip balms] don't have fragrances, menthol, camphor, or salicylic acid. If you're using a product and you feel like it's not getting better, you should generally consider switching to something more bland," said Dr. Ugonabo. Lip products that contain heavy fragrances and dyes are more likely to dry out your lips over time because these ingredients can block your pores and disrupt your lip skin's natural oil balance, as well as cause potential irritation or inflammation.

Vitamin and Nutrient Deficiency

Other than cosmetic products drying out your lips, other items that are used daily or consumed often can be an unsuspecting culprit of dry lips. These items include mouthwash, toothpaste, dried or pickled foods with high concentrations of preservatives, and spicy and salty foods, says Dr. Koo. The strong ingredients in mouthwash and toothpaste can absorb into the lips and cause the skin to dry out. Similarly, food that's salty, spicy, or high in preservatives can dry out both the mouth and lips and cause the skin to chap.

"Chapped, dry lips can also indicate a vitamin B9, B2, B6, or B12 deficiency," says Dr. Koo. These vitamins are vital for helping with energy production, cell function, tissue repair, wound healing, and helping to keep the skin healthy. A deficiency in the B vitamins can lead to dry mouth or cracked lips, as can dehydration and malnutrition, explains Dr. Koo. A diet that lacks the needed amount of nutrients, such as vitamins B, A, and zinc, can cause dry rough lips. It's equally important to make sure that you're hydrating, since drinking plenty of water will help ensure that your skin is hydrated internally throughout the day as well, recommends Dr. Koo.

Inflammatory medical conditions, such as colitis (a digestive disease caused by inflammation in the inner lining of the colon) or any malabsorption (difficulty in absorbing nutrients from food) syndrome decreasing your body's nutrition, will also cause dry lips. Similarly, "dry lips can also be a side effect of medications such as lithium, retinoids, or chemotherapy drugs," says Dr. Koo. All of these medications contain ingredients that slow down the production of saliva which can result in dry mouth and lips.

Skin Conditions

On the other hand, certain skin conditions such as eczema can spread to the skin on the lips, causing dryness and irritation. "Eczema of the lips," otherwise known as eczematous cheilitis, tends to be chronic and is associated with atopic dermatitis (a condition that causes dry, itchy, and inflamed skin)," says Dr. Koo. It presents as red, flaky, irritated, and sometimes painful lips, and it tends to be more severe than chapped lips. "Often, dyes, fragrances, or certain toothpaste or lipstick can set off an allergic reaction, leading to allergic cheilitis that resembles eczematous cheilitis," according to Dr. Koo. The difference between the two is lip eczema can be chronic and recurring, while allergic cheilitis can clear in 24 hours.

Another condition that's associated with dry lips is thrush, which is a fungal (yeast) infection of the mouth and can occur at the corners of the mouth, according to Dr. Koo. Thrush occurs when the Candida yeast that normally lives in the mouth and throat has an overgrowth. Although it is most common in people with a weakened immune system and chronic conditions like diabetes, it can occur as a result of dry mouth and lips as this disrupts the normal balance of organisms in the mouth and increases the risk of thrush developing. Thrush presents as red, irritated, and painful mouth corners that won’t heal. Thrush can also affect the dry or wet parts of the lips and show up as white plaques or dry, irritated patches, says Dr. Koo.

How to Treat and Prevent Dry Lips

Just as you moisturize your body's skin to prevent dryness, your lips also deserve a little TLC to lock in moisture. Here are some easy tips and preventative measures you can take to ensure that your dry lips stay hydrated and chap-free.

Makeup

One of the first steps in combating dry lips is to inventory the products you're using on them, as this is frequently the source of the problem. Avoid using lip products that contain fragrances, which can cause irritation, as well as flavored lip balms that may lead to constant lip licking, recommends Dr. Koo. These products typically contain synthetic dyes that are derived from aluminum and are often listed on packaging as "D&C Red No. 21" or a similar color and number combination. These inorganic dyes can cause irritation or an allergic reaction that can lead to flaky, cracked lips. Instead, you'll want to "use a moisturizing lip balm with SPF to keep the lips protected because direct sun exposure on the lips can cause sunburn," says. Dr. Koo.

Environment and Weather

If you live in an environment with frigid temperatures "cover your lips with a scarf to protect them from drying out due to the extremely cold temperatures and harsh winds," says Dr. Koo. The cold winds tend to absorb the moisture out of the lips, causing the lips to crack and peel. By adding a buffer between the lips and the air, you can offer relief from the harsh effects of the cold temps. Another way to keep your skin hydrated is to ensure the air at home isn't dry. "Use a humidifier at home and especially at night in the bedroom to add moisture into the air and [prevent] dry air and heat from drying out the lips and skin," says Dr. Koo.

Skin Care

"For dry lips, you want something that is moisturizing and occlusive, meaning that it's actually going to seal in the moisture," said Dr. Ugonabo. He recommends occlusive ingredients such as petroleum jelly, shea butter, mineral oil, and ceramides. You can easily incorporate these products into your routine, for example, "at night, coat the lips with Vaseline, Nivea, coconut oil, or vitamin E oil to keep the lips moisturized," says Dr. Koo. Vaseline is an occlusive emollient thanks to its main ingredient: petrolatum. "It works to prevent already dehydrated, chapped lips hold onto water," shared Rachel Maiman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical with Shape previously. "This prevents further moisture loss, as may occur from environmental insults such as cold, dry winter weather, and also optimizes barrier repair." Coating the lips in a hydrating product will ensure the lips don't dry out overnight, especially since heaters and air conditioners can absorb the moisture out of the air and the skin.

Finally, cleanse your skin nightly, especially after wearing makeup, since sleeping in makeup and lipsticks can dry out the skin according to Dr. Koo.

Medical Conditions

In extreme cases, your dry chapped lips can become infected and cause bacterial cheilitis (inflammation of the lips due to a bacterial or fungal infection), and an antibiotic intervention may be required, explains Dr. Koo. If your dry, irritated lips do not improve after implementing the methods above or you experience bleeding lips, swelling in your mouth, urticaria (a rash on the skin that forms raised, itchy welts), or difficulty breathing, you should consult a dermatologist, according to Dr. Koo.

While dry chapped lips are uncomfortable, unsightly, and pretty annoying to deal with, there are some steps you can implement to help combat and prevent dry lips and keep your skin soft, supple, and moisturized. By consistently practicing these changes and using beauty products that nourish and coat the lips with a hydrating, protective layer, you'll be kissing dry lips goodbye in no time.

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