The Skin Science
When comparing our lips to other areas of skin, there are a few important differences to note:
The skin on our lips is very thin. Did you know that the outermost protective stratum corneum is only 3-4 layers thick compared to 15-16 layers on the rest of our face?
Lip skin has very few melanin-producing cells. This, and the thinness of the skin, explain why our lips are a pink colour - they are thin and transparent, and so the tissue underneath is more visible. Yes, those pink lips are your vascular tissue showing through!
Lip skin does not have sebaceous glands or hair follicles. This means there is no sebum produced on your lips. No sebum means none of that oiliness that can cause pimples (yay) but it also means that the lips don't have the same level of lipid barrier protection as elsewhere on the body(1).
Why Your Lips Are Naturally Prone to Drying Out
The lack of sebum production on lip skin means it is far more prone to drying out, particularly when the air is dry.
This usually comes to a head during winter - the cold air holds less moisture, we spend time in heated rooms where air is further dehydrated, and we tend to take longer hot showers which can deplete oils from the skin on our lips and the rest of our bodies.
Common Causes of Dry Lips
- Heat, burns
- Cold air
- Certain diseases and chronic conditions
- Certain chemicals, like chlorine
- Habits like licking, touching, or picking at the lips
Dos & Don'ts for Dry Lips
Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and keep diuretics like caffeine and alcohol to a minimum.
Choose The Right Lip Balm
Apply a high quality lip balm frequently throughout the day and after eating or drinking.
Your lip balm should offer barrier-building fatty acids that restore the natural barrier function, an occlusive barrier from a good quality wax to prevent water loss and reduce exposure to irritants, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds from natural sources.
Avoid lip balms that contain water. Water is added as a thinner and has no benefit to your skin. A diluted lip balm means you will have to reapply often to receive the same amount of protection you would from a water-free balm.
In addition, your lip balm should be free of added flavours, colours and essential oils, which have the potential to irritate the skin.
Avoid The Heat
Hot drinks or standing under a hot shower for too long will deplete the skin’s oily barrier and make it more prone to dehydration. It will also remove your lip balm so reapply afterwards!
Minimise Exposure to UV Light
The lack of melanin in the lips makes them extremely vulnerable to UV damage which can lead to collagen loss, further thinning of the skin and skin cancer.
Resist Licking Your Lips - It Won't Help!
It’s instinctive - when our lips are dry, we tend to lick them to try to relieve the tight feeling.
Unfortunately, our saliva contains digestive enzymes that can break down the protective outer layer of skin, leaving it drier and further exposed to irritants.
In fact, saliva itself can be an irritant once the skin’s barrier is damaged and inflammation of the lips, known as ‘chelitis’, can result.
Further, the corners of the lips can become chronically inflamed by pooling of saliva in that location, sometimes with secondary invasion by microorganisms (2).
In some people, lip licking can be habit forming, resulting in chronically inflamed lips.
Exfoliate But Be Gentle
Removing flakey skin from the lips should be performed extremely gently. Never pull skin flakes from the lips as this will damage the skin further. We recommend using this gentle lip scrub.
Take care not to over-exfoliate or exfoliate too often, your lips are gentle and repeated or harsh scrubbing will hurt, can damage the skin, and cause further dryness.
Again, choose your exfoliator carefully as lip products will be ingested.
1. Kadu, M. et al (2015) Review on Natural Lip Balm International Journal of Research in Cosmetic Science 5:1-7
2. Fonseca, A. et al (2020) Art of prevention: Practical interventions in lip-licking dermatitis Int. Journal of Women's Dermatology 6:377-380