Dear Alice,

I have had chronically chapped lips for months and have tried everything from herbal balms to Vaseline and nothing works, including not using anything. What should I do?

Dear Reader,

Chapped lips are a real pain, but don't despair — one or more of the following factors could be playing a part in your chronically chapped lip situation.

Lip Licking: Instinctively, you may be tempted to lick your chapped lips every so often, even without noticing. However, one of the worst things you can do to chapped lips is to lick 'em, because doing so reduces the presence of moisture-rich natural oils on the lips. In turn, your lips get dry, so you lick them again, starting a cycle. Try to be conscious of how often you lick your lips and break the habit if it’s something you’re doing often. If your lips are flaky, resist the urge to pick or bite them.

Dehydration: Is your environment too dry? Using a humidifier or placing a pan or pot of water on a radiator can help add humidity to the surrounding air, which promotes the skin’s ability to retain moisture. Also think about whether you’re getting enough water. Make sure to drink 8 - 10 cups (1 cup = 8 ounces) every day to prevent dehydration.

Smoking: Cigarette smoking constantly evaporates natural oils off the lips, resulting in chapped, dry skin. If you’re a student at Columbia and you want to quit smoking, check out Columbia Health’s Tobacco Cessation program for support.

The great outdoors: If you spend any time outdoors in harsh conditions, your symptoms may be a result of wind or sunburn. Cover and moisturize your lips with a gentle balm or petroleum jelly to protect them from the drying effects of wind and sun. Don't forget that lips need sunscreen year round, even when the temperature is mild. A lip balm with SPF 15 or higher will help prevent further chapping.

Drugs: Certain medications can dry out your lips. Oral acne medications are a common culprit. Check with your pharmacist or dermatologist to determine whether any medications you’re taking are responsible for your chapped lips.

Cosmetics: Many lipsticks, balms, lip-plumping products, lotions, anti-aging creams, and other cosmetics applied to or in close proximity of the lips contain allergy-inducing chemicals such as phenol, alpha-hydroxy acids, retinoids, nut oils, capsaicin, mint, various essential oils, and menthol. In order to isolate a particular chemical or product that you suspect you may be allergic, try staying consistent with individual products for short periods of time. You may want to start with plain ol' petroleum jelly, and then try other lip products one at a time for a few weeks each. Surprisingly, vitamin E and aloe vera gel can be irritating to individuals with very sensitive skin, so test these products as well.

Food: Certain spicy or acidic foods can trigger dry, cracked lips. For example, mango peel contains a chemical called toxicodendron (also found in poison ivy) that can irritate the lips. Try eliminating very spicy or acidic foods from your diet for a couple of weeks to determine whether a food allergy is the source of your chronically dry lips.

Certain underlying medical issues, such as fungal infections, diabetes mellitus, malignancy, anemia, multiple endocrine adenomatosis syndrome, malnutrition, Crohn’s disease, or HIV may increase the likelihood of dry lips. If you’re experiencing any other symptoms, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your health care provider to rule out more serious conditions.

Chronically dry lips can be frustrating and difficult to deal with, especially when you feel like you’ve tried every possible solution. If you try all of the above suggestions with no relief, consider contacting your health care provider or dermatologist for an evaluation. If you’re a Columbia student, you can schedule an appointment with Medical Services on the Morningside campus via Open Communicator. If you’re a student on the Medical Center campus, you can call 212-854-7426 to set up an appointment with Student Health.


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