How to Avoid Chapped Lips This Winter, According to Dermatologists

Temperatures are dropping and there's less moisture in the air, and we all know what that means — lips start to get dry, itchy, and cracked. Yet, while you obviously know what chapped lips feel like (hint: they're super tight and uncomfortable), you might not know exactly what causes your lips to get this way. Turns out, there are a number of reasons for chapped lips, and once you know the triggers, you can look to a few lifestyle habits that will help keep them soft and hydrated — even when the weather isn't cooperating. Here are common causes of chapped lips, along with a few dermatologist-approved tips for treating and preventing them, to keep on your radar.

First off, what exactly are chapped lips?

Chapped lips, also known as cheilitis, can have many triggers, says Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist in Pennsylvania. "When you hear 'chapped lips' most people are thinking about cheilitis sicca," she says. "This is chapped lips as a result of excess dryness."

The skin on the lips is among the most sensitive areas on the body and the most exposed to the environment, explains Joshua Zeichner, dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The lips do not have the same concentration of oil glands as regular skin and are constantly exposed to environmental factors, like lip licking, cosmetics, and cold weather. "All of these factors can dry out the skin barrier, leading to irritation, inflammation, and flaking," he says.

What are the major causes of chapped lips?

As the weather gets colder and drier, the thin skin on the lips tends to dry out faster than the rest of our skin. This can make the lips look cracked, flaky, and raw in some areas, which can be really uncomfortable, Ilyas explains. But the weather isn't always the cause of your parched lips. When there's irritation from a product or an allergy, called contact cheilitis, lips can also become inflamed. These allergic reactions are usually due to pigments in lipsticks, fragrances, and flavoring agents in foods. You can do patch-testing at your dermatologist's office to see if that's a cause.

But irritation could also be from your everyday skin-care products. "I find that when patients use acne products, they often inadvertently get some on their lips," says Ilyas. "These products are designed to exfoliate your skin to improve [breakouts]. If they get on your lips, you will find your lips are persistently dry and cracked." Apply white petrolatum or balm to your lips before applying products formulated with salicylic acid. "The balm acts as a protective barrier on your lips to avoid the irritation they can cause," she says.

And if you have a history of sun damage, your lips are probably taking the heat, too. "In adults with a lot of sun damage over the years, it's not uncommon to have patients come in concerned about 'chapped lips,' which may be in one spot or along the entire lower lip year-round," says Ilyas.

Unfortunately, this can be the sign of precancerous changes to the lips, called actinic cheilitis, she says, so you'll want to get this checked by a doctor, for sure. "This is important to consider as we need to treat the underlying sun damage to improve the texture and appearance of the lips," she says. It's often treated with cryotherapy, a topical chemotherapeutic agent, or photodynamic therapy.

How can you prevent chapped lips?

In mild cases, the skin on the lips may be able to repair itself. However, in cases of significant irritation, the lips may need outside help to repair a damaged skin barrier, says Zeichner. A good rule of thumb is to keep lips moist throughout the day to prevent drying from occurring in the first place. Regularly applying lip balms containing ingredients like occlusive agents, such as lanolin in Aquaphor, white petrolatum in Vaseline, or simply beeswax, will help protect the lip skin and make them more effective.

The easiest way to incorporate extra hydration is to make putting on a lip balm a consistent before-bed habit to repair lips overnight. You can also add a humidifier to your nighttime routine to restore moisture to the air, says Ilyas. "This will also help those who tend to [breathe through their mouths] at night," she says. "They tend to have a higher tendency toward chapped lips."

You should also use a treatment formulated with sunscreen, like EltaMD UV Lip Balm Broad Spectrum SPF 31, even in winter. "It's important to use added SPF if your skin is inflamed and you think you may be getting added sun exposure," says Ilyas. "If your dry, chapped skin of the lips is affected by the sun, they can burn easily and possibly trigger a fever blister outbreak. If you already have dry lips, it's possible for more fever blisters or cold sores to spread in that dry, cracked skin."

Regularly exfoliating can help with flakes, but don't overdo it, says Zeichner. "If you see flakes, my first recommendation is to give the skin what it's asking for, which is hydration," he says. "After moisturizing the lips, if there are still flakes, you can use gentle sugar scrubs."

Just be sure to follow the scrub with a balm or similar hydrator with nourishing ingredients, such as almond oil or vitamin E, both of which are known for healing, anti-inflammatory, and hydrating properties. "The raw skin left over will need to be protected to allow healing to occur," says Ilyas.

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Originally Appeared on Allure