You're already applying sunscreen to your arms, legs, and face at least every two hours ... right? But chances are, you're likely skipping one really important spot: Your lips.
Just like the rest of your skin, your lips can get damaged by the sun, leading to sunburn, premature aging, and even skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and one in five Americans will develop it in their lifetimes, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Developing skin cancer on the lips is especially risky, says Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in San Diego.
"The blood vessels and lymphatics are more intimately related," she says. "We get very concerned that cancers [on the lips] can be more aggressive in nature because they can spread more easily through these conduits to other areas of the body."
The good news: You can protect your lips from UV damage. Here's what you need to know about preventing sunburned lips and how to heal them in the advent of too much sun exposure — just in time for Skin Cancer Awareness Month this May.
Can your lips get sunburned?
Yes, the sun can damage and burn your lips just like the rest of your skin. "The lips can develop precancerous or actinic keratosis, basal or squamous cell skin cancers, and even the most deadliest of skin cancers, melanomas," says Deanne Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Westport, Connecticut. An actinic keratosis (as it's technically called) can present as a rough, red, scaly patch or a distinct area of dry skin that never seems to rid itself.
The lower lip usually gets more sun damage than the upper lip, Dr. Palm adds. "If the sun is overhead, it's going to hit the lower lip and the upper lip is relatively spared in terms of sun exposure," she says. Water (at the beach or pool) and snow (like when you're skiing) can reflect the rays back on that top lip though, so comprehensive protection is key.
Not only can you get a (temporary) red, painful, and flakey sunburn on the lips, but over time too much UV exposure can lead to a rough or leathery appearance, collagen breakdown, dilation of blood vessels, and precancerous spots, Dr. Palm says.
What's the best sunscreen for lips?
For most people, lip balms with physical sunscreens are a great way to go, Dr. Palm and Dr. Robinson agree. These incorporate the active mineral ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide and function differently than chemical sunscreens.
"The physical-based sunscreens work almost like mirrors; they reflect light back into the environment," Dr. Palm explains. "Chemical sunscreens function like little heat absorbers. They actually convert UV light energy into heat, but heat can cause inflammation on the skin," which translates to irritated lips.
Pick one with an SPF of at least 30 and reapply every 90 to 120 minutes or after eating or drinking, Dr. Robinson recommends. Both Dr. Palm and Dr. Robinson recommended Coola Tinted Mineral Lip Balm with SPF 30, which comes in a range of shades as well as an untinted, sheer formula. Our pros recommend a colored lip balm when in the sun, though: "Tinted formulas may offer even better protection as the pigment forms a physical barrier over the lip for added protection," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
On the flip side, "Clear glosses without sunscreen are the worst product to put on your lips in the sun, as they can actually allow UV light to better penetrate into the skin," says Dr. Zeichner. Staying in the shade, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and avoiding the sun during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. can also help protect your skin and lips.
How long do sunburned lips take to heal?
Sunburned lips will heal a little more quickly — a day or two sooner — than other areas of the skin because they're a mucosal surface, Dr. Palm says. That timeline can range from a couple day to a week or more depending on the severity of the burn.
Just like skin, your lips can get very dry after the initial inflammation and redness go away. Using moisturizers can help combat this, but generally, just let your lips do their own thing: "Our body has a pretty amazing way of healing itself on its own time," Dr. Palm says.
How do you heal sunburned lips fast?
While it's always best to prevent a sunburn before it happens, we know that it's easier said than done. Here's what you can do to speed up your sunburn's healing process if you've accidentally overdone it, according to Dr. Palm and Dr. Robinson.
Apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to reduce redness and swelling. (It's okay to put on your lips in small amounts — just try not to lick it off!)
Take ibuprofen or Advil to help with pain and discomfort.
Rehydrate by drinking lots of water.
Make a mini mask with oatmeal to soothe the skin.
Use a green tea-soaked washcloth as cool compress. The polyphenols in the tea can promote healthy cell turnover.
Put some cucumber slices on your lips for a hydrating and cooling effect.
Reach for the aloe, which has healing and hydrating properties.
Gently exfoliate flakey dryness with a gommage product like Sakura Silk at the end of the healing process.
The new skin after a sunburn is very delicate, so you'll want to avoid anything that may slow or counteract the progress made:
Don’t peel or bite off peeling skin.
Leave any blisters alone.
Skip harsh, granular exfoliators.
Avoid hot or spicy foods and beverages.
Prevent any further damage from sun exposure.
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