Ask Ugly: I’m addicted to lip balm – but it doesn’t work. What’s a better alternative?

<span>‘It’s fine to use lip balm for temporary relief as long as you’re aware that it’s temporary.’</span><span>Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian</span>
‘It’s fine to use lip balm for temporary relief as long as you’re aware that it’s temporary.’Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian

Hi Ugly,

I’m struggling with a decades-long addiction to ChapStick. My relationship with lip balm started when I was a teen, using my mother’s ChapStick for my chapped lips. I’ve tried almost every balm out there: EOS, ChapStick, Burt’s Bees, Palmer’s Coco Butter Balm. I even dabbled in the menthol balms, much to my current self’s chagrin.

Flash to current day, and I am never not within arm’s reach of a lip balm. I’ve got balm “stations” – one in my bag, one near my bed, one in my desk at work, one in my car. I’ve ensured that I will never be without lip balm should I need it. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t in big balm’s best interest to let us break the habit, but I’m determined to cut down on my usage. But I absolutely cannot stand the feeling of dry and chapped lips. Is there any hope for me?

–Lip Balm Addict

Related: Ask Ugly: I’m getting ads for beauty products for my baby. Infants don’t need skincare – do they?

Let us begin by acknowledging the wonder, the awe, the – dare I say? – beauty of the chapped lip. The chapping process is one of life’s tiny miracles. The thin skin of your lips senses a dearth of available H2O in its environment, for reasons either internal (not enough water intake) or external (colder temperatures, drier air, excess exposure to UV rays or pollution particles), so it slows its cycle of renewal. It stops shedding dead cells. These dead cells build up and form a barrier. This barrier attempts to keep whatever hydration you do have left from evaporating into thin air, and that hoarded hydration keeps your cells functioning.

It’s the stuff of poetry, really. Flaky skin is evidence of interdependence, adaptability, resilience. Flakes are moisture persevering!

That said, flakes are also a cry for attention. The same goes for cracks, redness, inflammation – whatever your particular chapped lips look like. Chapping is the body’s way of saying, “I’m doing all I can here. A little help in the hydration department, please?” Help can come in many forms (I’ll get to those later), but because we live in a society that worships the industrial production of little plastic thingies, most people use a tube (or 12) of lip balm.

You describe your use as an “addiction”. I want to be clear that petrolatum, the main ingredient in ChapStick and other products like it, is not chemically addictive. It is, however, so ineffective at addressing the root cause of the problem it purports to solve that it can eventually worsen chapped lips by conditioning users to crave the short-term results it provides at the expense of exploring other, more practical solutions.

Here’s what’s happening to you, Lip Balm Addict: “Occlusive lip products like ChapStick can act as a protective barrier, helping to mitigate moisture loss on the lips, particularly in dry conditions,” said aesthetician Mary Schook. This faux-barrier takes over for your chapped barrier. It locks in existing hydration and your lips receive the signal that it’s OK to release old, flaking cells. They appear moist and plump once more. Relief! Albeit temporary.

The issue is that ChapStick “isn’t adding real hydration to your lips”, according to Dr Michelle Henry, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York. Petrolatum “locks in moisture, but it doesn’t give you moisture”, she explained. “It blocks your lips from getting moisture from the environment.” Your lips are still dry under all that balm, which becomes apparent as soon as the product wears off. “Because you’re never really getting hydrated, you end up using more and more of it,” Dr Henry said.

That lip balm requires constant reapplication doesn’t strike consumers as a product flaw, but as an opportunity to fulfill their personal purpose: buying stuff. If you’re truly addicted to anything in this scenario, dear Lip Balm Addict, it’s probably that. And you’re not alone! Last year, lip treatment sales increased 58% year-on-year. In a recent report on the “collect-them-all” mentality of lip gloss lovers, Business of Fashion quoted a source as saying, “My friends carry it the same way they would carry a Juul. It’s an object to carry with you everywhere, and there’s usually a few of them in people’s bags.”

(Fun fact: the average American woman has more lip products than close friends.)


Anyway! I’m not going to convince you to give up lip balm on the basis that consumerism takes a psychic toll on the individual and the collective. I’m going to convince you to give up lip balm on the basis that consumerism is literally chapping your lips.

Studies show that air pollution can decrease skin moisture and increase skin dryness – two factors that lead to chapped lips. “Nearly all (90%) of the world’s population experience daily pollution,” reports the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. “Most commonly, pollutants are generated through the burning of fossil fuels.” ChapStick and similar balms are top-to-bottom byproducts of fossil fuels, from the plastic packaging tubes to the petrochemical ingredients inside (petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, paraffin wax). Ergo, on a macro level, the mass production of lip balm contributes to the demand for lip balm.

ChapStick might seem like too small a thing to concern yourself with, climate-wise. But when it comes to the environment, small things are actually very big things! Many lip balms are too small to be recycled, and the large majority of “recycled” plastic ends up in landfills anyway. These tubes become garbage as soon as they’re used up. They remain garbage for life. That’s hundreds of millions of plastic units each year, destined for landfill, the ocean or an incinerator. And petrochemical ingredients make up the oil industry’s “next major growth market”, per CNBC. The outlet predicts that “every year through 2050, there will be 10 million metric tons of growth in the market for petrochemicals.”

The beauty industry plays a not-insignificant part in that growth. Managing climate change – and the damage it does to all human health and your individual lips –must include collectively divesting from petrochemicals. That is to say: goodbye, big balm!

You ask if there’s hope for you, Lip Balm Addict. There is! There are plenty of ways to care for your kisser that don’t involve purchasing a non-recyclable plastic tube of petrochemical goo.

First, “make sure you drink enough water”, Dr Henry said. Lip skin is thinner than facial skin, so they “are one of the first places where we start to see signs of dehydration”, the dermatologist explained. Up your water intake at the onset of chapping and you’ll see full-body benefits. It’s also important to get enough electrolytes (minerals that help cells absorb water) and antioxidants (compounds that counteract pollution particles) via fruits and veggies.

Another reason your lips are more susceptible to dryness is because they don’t produce sebum (the protective oil that comes out of your pores). Instead, they rely on trace amounts of essential fatty acids to lock in moisture. The body can’t produce essential fatty acids on its own; it needs to obtain them via diet. “Eating foods with healthy fats, like salmon and avocado” can help prevent and heal chapped lips, Dr Henry said. A daily Omega-3 supplement is another effective option.

If you’re in a cold or dry climate, a bedside humidifier is a good idea. It lasts for years (and costs less than a single Dior Glow Lip Oil). Also: avoid licking your lips! Saliva evaporates quickly and can exacerbate that tight, dry feeling.

That said, there’s no need to go cold turkey. It’s fine to use lip balm for temporary relief as long as you’re aware that it’s temporary. For a fix that isn’t directly derived from fossil fuels, Dr Henry suggests balms featuring beeswax, shea butter, almond oil or coconut oil. (Personally, I apply a drop of jojoba oil to my lips overnight when they need some TLC.) “Stay clear of products with camphor or menthol, as they can create irritation or even dermatitis,” Schook added.

My final advice, Lip Balm Addict? Limit your stash to one. It’s portable! Put it in your pocket. Carry it around with you. Use it when you want it, make do when you forget it. Consider it a lesson in adaptability and resilience.