What can I do to prevent chapped lips?

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Q: Why are my lips so chapped and what can I do about it?

A: Ah winter, that time of year when the freezing wind whips past your face and dries out your skin. Lips have a very thin layer of skin compared to the rest of the face, so they are especially susceptible to drying out in the cold wind and low humidity of winter. Add to that your natural tendency to lick your lips to rewet them, and you’ve set yourself up for dry, cracked and painful lips.

So what can you do to prevent and/or treat your chapped winter lips? Keep ‘em covered!  Balms and ointments containing petrolatum or beeswax are the best for sealing in moisture and creating a barrier between your skin and the elements, although if you have acne you might want to look for petrolatum-free products as these are less likely to cause blackheads and breakouts.  Try to look for one with some SPF protection as well, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors. You can get burnt even when it’s cloudy!  In general, ingredients such as eucalyptus, menthol, and camphor tend to be irritating so try to stay away from them.

Make sure to apply treatment before you go out into the cold and especially before going to bed, as many of us tend to sleep with our mouths open, which leads to lips drying out. You may also want to consider investing in a humidifier to use during the winter, when the heater tends to dry out the air indoors. Also, make sure you drink plenty of water and stay hydrated.  If you’re doing all of the above and still have trouble with chapped lips, take a look at your cosmetics and skin care products – sometimes, the ingredients can cause an allergic reaction that irritates your lips.

There are some common lip ailments that may be confused with chapping, the most common of which are cold sores and angular cheilitis.  Cold sores are caused by a herpes virus and may be improved with oral antiviral medications.  Angular cheilitis is a painful inflammation of the corners the mouth.  It can be caused by Vitamin B deficiency, mechanical irritation or a fungal infection.  It is treated by correcting the underlying cause and/or antifungal medication.

If you have persistently chapped or irritated lips that do not improve with the simple steps listed above, make an appointment at Student Health Services – we are always happy to see you!

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University


photo: portlandmainedentist.com 

4 thoughts on “What can I do to prevent chapped lips?

  1. Hi Dr. Vaughn,

    Was so glad to run into this article there is so much conflicting information out there about what’s good and not good for treating dry, chapped lips.

    I know you recommend petrolatum – and it’s what I use every day (Vaseline) – what is your professional opinion about the claim that petrolatum and waxes “suffocate” the skin/lips by keeping out air and moisture, and therefore actually can CAUSE dryness and chapping?

    I am thinking you don’t agree, but wanted to ask, so I can better understand why that is inaccurate and put it to rest in my mind.


  2. Hi, I had left a comment on this post yesterday, I came back to see if by any chance there was an answer, but I don’t see my comment any more…are you still accepting comments on this post/subject? Because if you are, I can resubmit my question. Thank you so much. Gina

    • I did some searching. I find plenty of medical/health sites that recommend the use of petroleum jelly on chapped lips, but cannot find any scientific evidence that it will suffocate the lips. Some have indicated that they have developed a sensitivity after prolonged use – so that may be something to keep an eye on.

  3. Thank you so much for looking into this, Tina – good to hear you couldn’t find any studies that support the notion of petroleum jelly suffocating the lips. Will continue using it, and will keep an out for any sensitivity.


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