Why are my lips so dry? How to care for dry, cracked lips

Our lips are particularly prone to dryness and most of us suffer from dry and cracked lips at some point. Dry and cracked lips are uncomfortable, sometimes painful and – because our lips are always on show – they can make us feel self-conscious too.

 

This article outlines common lip skin complaints, identifies their causes and explains why lips need special care. Learn how you can soothe and repair chapped lips and how to protect lips that are prone to dryness.

Common dry lip concerns

There are three common lip skin concerns:

  • Dry and/or cracked lips
  • Cheilitis
  • Lip-licking dermatitis

Symptoms of these lip concerns include flaking, bleeding, scales, swelling and sores.

Dry, cracked lips

Many of us experience dry and cracked lips at some time or another, so the symptoms are well known. Sore lips feel dry, tight and uncomfortable and – as the condition worsens and they dry out further – they can become cracked and painful.

Cheilitis

Cheilitis is the term used for inflammation of one or both lips. Inflammation of the facial skin area which surrounds lips is called perioral dermatitis. Lips appear dark pink or redder than normal. They may have a lumpy texture, develop ulcers or form white plaques on the surface.

There are several different types of cheilitis and cheilitis simplex is more commonly known as chapped lips. People with underlying dry skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis are more prone to cheilitis than others. Cheilitis can also be caused by weather conditions and by allergic reactions to certain ingredients in products such as lipsticks, toothpastes or food or as a side effect of certain medications.

Lip-licking dermatitis

As our lips dry out it is tempting to lick them to try and keep them moist, especially in cold, dry weather. For some people this licking becomes habitual, disrupting the normal skin barrier function, resulting in inflammation. Lip-licking dermatitis (or lip-licking eczema) are the more common names for a type of cheilitis known as ‘irritant contact cheilitis.’

Lip-licking eczema is common for children, though can be present at any age. This creates dryness, scaling and chronic redness to areas that can be reached by the tongue.

What causes dry lips?

There are several different underlying causes and triggers for dry, chapped or cracked lips. These include:

  • Skin type and condition
  • Lip skin structure
  • Environment
  • Face coverings
  • Certain medication

Skin type and condition

As some people are more prone to dry skin than others, some are more susceptible to dry and split lips.

Those with an underlying dry skin condition such as atopic dermatitis are more likely to suffer from dry and cracked lips. And some of us also lick our lips more frequently than others. This can cause lip-licking dermatitis, or just make dry lip symptoms worse.

Lip skin structure

Structure of skin varies on different parts of the body. The skin on our lips is thinner than elsewhere on our face making it more sensitive to the environment. 

Lip skin doesn’t have any sweat or sebaceous glands. These glands, present in most skin on our bodies, are responsible for producing the protective oils that help skin to regulate its moisture levels. This absence of sweat and sebaceous glands in our lips means it’s harder for them to attract and retain the moisture they need and they are prone to drying out.

 
Healthy lips
A lack of sweat glands in the lips makes it more difficult to retain moisture.

As the skin ages, lip skin changes: it gets thinner and is less able to retain moisture, making our lips even more prone to dryness.

Lip skin also contains fewer melanocytes. Melanocytes are the melanin-producing cells that give skin color and help to protect it from the sun. Both these structural factors make lips more sensitive to the environment.

Three generations of women
Lips are prone to age-induced dryness.

Environment

Our lips are constantly exposed to the environment. Changes in climate and weather conditions are a significant trigger of dry, cracked lips.

During the hot summer months, both time in the sun and time indoors with drying air conditioning may cause lips to dry out. Chapped lips can be easily burned by the sun, which can lead to cold sores. Symptoms can be bad in the winter too: cold outdoor temperatures and icy cold winds, low air humidity indoors due to heating and moving regularly from the warm indoors to the cold outdoors all speed up moisture loss.

woman covering dry lips with clothing
Many of us suffer from dry, cracked lips in the winter

People who spend a significant amount of time outdoors – either due to leisure pursuits or because of their jobs – are likely to suffer more than others.

Face coverings

Wearing a face mask can cause dry and chapped lips because the covering can trap moist breath around your lips. This close contact to skin, combined with a warm moist environment between the surfaces creates an opportunity for the skin to become irritated, blotchy and sore, leading to a condition colloquially called Maskne.

Certain medications

Some medications can cause skin and lips to dry out and crack. People applying topical retinoids such as Tretinoin or Adapalene or taking oral Isotretinoin as part of their medical acne treatment sometimes experience dry and cracked lips as a side effect.

Other medications and supplements that can trigger dry lips include vitamin A, lithium and chemotherapy drugs.

single tablet outside of packaging
Some oral acne medications can dehydrate lips

How to stop dry lips

Prevention is always better than cure. Follow these tips to prevent chapped lips, keeping them soft and smooth:

  • Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated
  • Apply a moisturising lip balm at least twice a day but ideally more often
  • Do not share lip balms with other people, as this can spread bacteria
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Avoid habitual lip-licking
  • If you have flaky skin on your lips, don’t pick it because this slows down the healing process
  • Exfoliate your chapped lips to remove the dry skin, allowing lip balms to work more effectively
  • Avoid smoking as tobacco can cause irritation and cracked lips
  • Keep your lips covered as much as possible in cold and windy conditions
  • Avoid eating spicy foods if you have sensitive lips, as these can irritate the skin
  • Do not place metal objects such as jewelry or paperclips in between the lips

Be on the lookout for things that seem to trigger symptoms for your lips and do your best to avoid them. Once your lips are dry or cracked, choose a moisturising lip balm that is clinically and dermatologically proven to soothe your lips, as well as being suited to your skin type and particular needs. 

woman applying a lip balm
Regularly apply a lip care product that strengthens, soothes and protects

Lip balm for dry lips

One of the most effective ways to soothe chapped lips is to apply a lip balm, or lip moisturiser, throughout the day and before going to sleep. While some people mistake a tingling or burning sensation as a sign of the lip balm working, this is actually irritating your lips. Make sure your lip balm is non-irritating, and always wash your hands before using the lip balm.

Eucerin Acute Lip Balm features a unique combination of active ingredients to provide a highly effective dry lips treatment. Evening primrose oil helps regenerate the lips’ natural protective barrier, while Panthenol moisturises, regenerates and promotes healing. This comes in a handy applicator tube so it’s easy to apply.

This been specially formulated with soothing Licochalcone A to bring relief and reduce redness for people with lips that needs intensive care as a result of atopic dermatitis, lip lick eczema, cheilitis or dryness and cracking as a side effect of medical acne treatment. It comes in a handy applicator tube so it’s easy to apply.

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