For many people, chapped lips are a recurring problem whether it’s hot or cold outside. Dehydration, strong wind blowing in the face, sun exposure, allergens and infections are all common causes for chapped lips. Inflammation, skin exfoliation and dryness, redness, cracks, crusts, bleeding and a strong burning sensation are symptoms that produce great discomfort. If left untreated, the condition can progress and interfere with normal eating and drinking as well as everyday life due to its social impact.
What are chapped lips? The medical term is cheilitis and refers to an inflammation of the lips manifesting through symptoms such as redness, dryness, irritation, fissures, bleeding, burning sensation etc. Treatment options may vary immensely depending on what is causing the condition as well as on the extent of lip damage that has already occurred. Considering how thin and sensitive the skin around our mouth and on our lips is, it is no surprise that cheilitis occurs so often.
What causes chapped lips? The skin on our lips and around them is incredibly sensitive and damage to it may occur for the silliest of reasons. It is estimated that water loss at the level of our lips is three to ten times higher than in any other part of our face and body. These innate predispositions combined with external factors such as climate particularities (aridity, elevated temperatures, low humidity) or weather conditions (freezing temperatures, strong wind) can easily lead to dry, chapped lips and encourage the condition to persist.
This being said, here are the most frequent causes that lead to dry, chapped lips:
1) Thin, sensitive skin around the mouth and on the lips. Different parts of our body enjoy different skin textures and thickness, depending on what we use them for. The skin on our heels or the soles of our feet is generally not as fine as the skin on our eyelids or lips because our feet need to support our weight and their skin is toughened by walking and running. There is no real need for having thick skin on our lips when we only use them for gentle activities such as eating or talking, which barely produce any impact.
2) Lack of sebaceous glands. Sebaceous as well as sweat glands can be found all over our body, but not on our lips. Soft and healthy looking skin is skin with a sufficient water content. But environmental and other factors may cause a reduction in the skin’s water content. In the case of our lips, the lack of sebaceous glands to help preserve their water content means they dry out even faster and can become cracked and painful. This is because they do not enjoy the protective coating that is the oily secretion of sebaceous glands.
3) Cold weather. Low temperatures cause blood vessels in our skin to contract which means blood flow and oxygenation are reduced. The skin on our lips is so thin, its blood vessels are very close to the surface and thus more exposed to the side effects of cold weather. When exposed to severe cold, our lips lose their healthy, rosy color and may turn blue due to blood vessels contracting to such a point that they fail to properly oxygenate the skin.
4) Arid climate and low humidity. Our lips require a healthy water content to look plump and soft. Low humidity and arid climates in general, combined with the lack of sebaceous glands, cause them to loose water, dry out and crack. Fissures lead to even more water loss and further damage.
5) Prolonged and inappropriate sun exposure. Taking in sun is health only when done correctly. Prolonged sun exposure causes dehydration and our lips are amongst the first to lose water, drying out and becoming cracked.
6) Wind. The wind is only bad for our lips when persistent. Wind blowing in our face for prolonged spans of time usually leads to dry, chapped lips and dry corners of the mouth.
7) Fungal and bacterial infections. Certain fungi target our lips especially, but infections can be subdued with the help of special antifungal remedies and ointments. Bacterial infections, on the other hand, are harder to treat because of their more complex nature. Your doctor might prescribe you creams, ointments, antibiotics or other medication to treat the infection and soothe the damaged lips.
8) Lip biting, lip licking, sucking or chewing on the lower lip and saliva. Such habits are damaging to our lips. Biting the lips or chewing on them can lead to cracks and subsequent drying, bleeding, burning and pain. Lip licking or sucking with the intent of moistening the lips with saliva actually contributes to drying them out faster by encouraging water evaporation from the lips. Moreover, the digestive enzymes in our saliva can cause irritation and further contribute to chapped lips.
9) Dehydration. Lip licking, chewing and sucking to strong wind, low temperatures, low humidity and dry air, exposure to certain foods such as very spicy or salty foods or side effects of medication can cause dehydration and chapped lips. Alcohol consumption, certain toothpaste, mouthwash, soap brands etc. can also cause dry, chapped lips. Not drinking enough liquids is a problem as well.
10) Allergies. Not all allergies manifest the same way. For example, my allergy to garden-grown tomatoes (probably because they are natural, organic and contain everything a tomato should, including specific allergens) manifests as a mild, but persistent, 2 day long, mouth and lips itching and dryness. Some people who are allergic to cherries report experiencing painful swelling of the lips and eczema around the mouth. The type of reaction and its severity may vary widely from person to person.
11) Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Dry, chapped lips and dry, cracked corners of the mouth, accompanied by eczema and itching can be a result of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, particularly vitamins A, E and B vitamins deficits. Vitamin C, which increases collagen production and helps initiate recovery of skin and tissues in general, is believed to help regenerate lips.
What are the most common signs and symptoms of having chapped lips?
1) Dryness of the lips and of the skin around the mouth.
2) Exfoliation or flaky, peeling skin.
3) Irritation with itching and redness.
5) Mild pain.
6) Burning or stinging sensation.
7) Cracks and bleeding.
More severe symptoms such as scaly or flaky skin, visible redness or strong burning sensation and bleeding are a sign of extensive lip damage which will take more effort and time to heal. Adress chapped lips from the start by can save us quite a lot of time, money and frustration. Here are 3 important things to keep in mind about chapped lips treatment:
1) Moisturizing. Chapped lips can happen to anyone, irrespective of gender, occupation or age. Granted, some people are more prone to the condition than others (for example, field workers or people prone to skin problems). Using a simple lip balm with cocoa butter, shea butter (karite butter), wheat germ oil, beeswax, jojoba oil and a SPF of at least 15 can save us a lot of trouble.
Lip care products should be used all year round because harsh weather conditions that may produce lip damage can occur at any time of the year. If you are unsure of which product to purchase, talk to your pharmacist or doctor, but simply reading the label and looking for strong natural emollient ingredients such as the ones listed above can help you make the right choice for you.
2) Hydration. Proper hydration is the key to overall good health. Actually, one of the main reasons we get chapped lips overnight is because we lack proper hydration, either because we sleep with our mouths open or because don’t wake up for several hours to drink water. Not drinking enough water, combined with hot weather and increased perspiration, can draw moisture from our lips and cause them to dry out easily, crack and bleed. What I do especially during summer is walk around with a 250 ml bottle of water at all times and take sips every time I feel my mouth or lips starting to feel a bit dry.
3) Nutrition. Good nutrition is important because our lips need nutrients to regenerate. Omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, tuna or sardines, extravirgin olive oil, healthy fats in general as well as foods with high amounts of dietary minerals such as nuts and seeds can help our lips immensely. Of course, drinking enough water and protecting the lips from harsh weather conditions are just as important.