Dry, flaky or cracking skin on the lips — aka chapped lips — is common in cold weather, but it can happen anytime of year, and to anybody.
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"Anyone can get chapped lips," Audrey Kunin, MD, board-certified dermatologist, Chief Product Officer of NovaBay Pharmaceuticals and founder of DERMAdoctor, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "When lips are too dry, the painful cracking and peeling begins."
Here's what causes dry, peeling lips and how to heal them.
What Causes Chapped Lips?
1. Weather Conditions
"Cold weather chapping is caused by environmental conditions that lead to dehydration," Dr. Kunin says.
In other words, dry winter air can sap the moisture from your lips, leaving them parched. The same goes for windy conditions.
Too much sun can also be the culprit here, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Sun damage can dry out your lips and lead to cracking and peeling (especially if you're not diligent about applying SPF to your smackers.)
The hallmark dryness of chapped lips can also occur if you aren't staying well hydrated, per the AAD. One of the effects of dehydration is dry skin, and that extends to the skin on your lips.
Other signs of dehydration include:
- Dark yellow urine
- Feeling tired or sluggish
3. Allergies to Certain Products
It may be counterintuitive, but your lipstick may be to blame, as the "ingredient propyl gallate in lipstick can cause a contact allergy," Dr. Kunin says. If you started using a new lipstick and notice your lips are drier than usual, you may want to stop using that product.
Then again, it could be your toothpaste. Some pastes contain the ingredients guaiazulene or sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which can cause a contact allergy or skin irritation, Dr. Kunin says. She recommends checking the ingredient label, especially if you began using a new toothpaste recently.
4. Irritants in Food
Dr. Kunin says the red dye or cinnamon flavoring used in candy, lozenges, gum and mouthwash can also cause chapped lips.
Another common culprit? Orange juice.
"The juice from citrus fruits can irritate your lips and cause a reaction that looks like chapped lips," she says.
5. Reactions to Certain Vitamins
Some people think dry lips are caused by a vitamin deficiency, but it's more likely that you're getting too much of a certain nutrient.
For example, Dr. Kunin says too much vitamin A can lead to peeling lips, especially if you're taking more than 25,000 IU a day.
She also warns that some people may develop an allergy to cobalt from taking vitamin B12 supplements. "It usually shows itself as unexplained episodes of recurrent swelling and crusting of lips, made worse by wind and sun exposure," she says.
6. Medical Conditions
Some medical causes of extremely chapped lips include:
- Actinic cheilitis, a reaction to long-term sun exposure on the lips that most often occurs in people who live at high altitudes or close to the equator and work outdoors
- Candida (yeast) infection, which usually shows up as a scaling and cracking at the outer lip and is particularly common among people with diabetes
- Hypothyroidism, when you don't create enough thyroid hormone (most common in people assigned female at birth who are older than 60)
Are Chapped Lips a Symptom of COVID-19?
Chapped lips aren't known to be a symptom of this illness, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common symptoms include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle or body aches, sore throat and a new loss of taste or smell.
If you snore at night, you might wake up with crusty lips.
"That continuous flow of breath across your lips all night long — caused by enlarged tonsils, adenoids or sleep apnea — can grossly dehydrate your lips," Dr. Kunin says.
Finally, we all know that pretty much any health problem can come down to stress.
"Do you respond to stress by habitually licking or chewing your lips? Continuous contact with saliva — which is chemically constituted to help break down and digest food — can dehydrate and irritate lips," Dr. Kunin says. "Many people are totally unaware of this habit."
She recommends asking your friends and family members if you have a tendency to lick or chew on your lips when you're nervous, and try to be more conscious of the behavior so you can nix it. You can also try to find healthier ways to manage stress, such as deep breathing or meditation.
Symptoms of Chapped Lips
Symptoms can include:
- Dry, scaly, cracked or flaking skin
- Sores on the lips
- Lip swelling
- In cases of extremely chapped lips, bleeding might occur
Best Remedies for Chapped Lips
1. Address the Underlying Cause
If your chapped lips are caused by something within your control, such as a certain product you're using or food you're eating, you can solve the issue by avoiding the irritant.
Likewise, if your symptoms are due to the vitamin A or B12 supplements you're taking, talk to your doctor or dietitian about how to adjust your dose or whether you can switch to a different delivery method (like injections, for example).
And if you think you may have a medical condition, talk to your doctor about appropriate treatment steps and how best to manage your symptoms.
2. Apply Emollients
According to Dr. Kunin, the best thing for chapped lips is emollients such as Vaseline ($2.49, Target.com) or Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($4.49, Walgreens.com). Lip balms with beeswax might help, too. However, consistency is key here.
"In order for them to work, you need to apply them obsessively," she says. "And I do mean obsessively. The more frequent the application of the emollient, the faster your results."
3. Use a Humidifier
You can also try cranking up your humidifier, "as it allows moisture to be restored to air and helps prevent and heal chapped lips," Dr. Kunin says.
4. Drink More Water
If dehydration is behind your dry lips, try getting more H2O in your day (especially if you're exercising.)
Most adults need to drink between 9 and 12.5 cups of water per day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As a more general guide, you should aim to drink half your body weight in ounces each day. (For example. if you weigh 180 pounds, shoot for 90 ounces, or about 11 cups.)
5. Ask About Hydrocortisone Ointment
If your lips are resistant to treatment, Dr. Kunin says she usually prescribes a 2.5 percent hydrocortisone ointment, which can be applied up to four times a day.
"It's amazing how adding a low-potency steroid ointment can make such a big difference in a lip-healing regimen," she says.
When to See a Doctor
Dr. Kunin says to make an appointment with your health care provider if your lips are:
- Not healing after about two weeks
- Unintentional weight loss
- Reduced appetite or lack of interest in food
- Tiredness or weakness
- Feeling cold
- Long recovery time from wounds or illness
- Feeling low or depressed
If you think you may have malnutrition, see a doctor as soon as possible.
- American Academy of Dermatology: "7 Dermatologists' Tips for Healing Dry, Chapped Lips"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How Much Water Do You Need"
- American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Actinic Cheilitis"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Hypothyroidism"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Symptoms of COVID-19"
- NHS: "Malnutrition Symptoms"