Having chapped lips is one of those health annoyances that’s technically survivable, but can still make your life miserable. After all, dealing with dry lips is the opposite of fun — especially if they reach bleeding point.
Here’s the thing: There’s a reason behind your super dehydrated lips. While it could be something as simple as not drinking enough water, licking your lips too much, or eating salty foods, the root cause can sometimes be an underlying health condition like sunburn, allergic reactions, or skin cancer. If that’s the case, no amount of lip balm — yep, even the really good stuff — is going to fix that.
Before you panic, know this: “Most cases of chapped lips can be treated in just a few weeks without a dermatologist’s intervention,” says board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, MD, the founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics and Professor of dermatology at Howard University and George Washington University. And sometimes peeling is just a side effect of the physiological makeup of your lips, according to Doris Day, MD, and Adam Friedman, MD.
But it’s always a good idea to know how to tell if you’re dealing with your average dryness or something else. Dermatologists break down some of the biggest reasons for all that peeling and dryness and how to fix the situation ASAP.
Why are my lips peeling so much?
Lips are naturally dry. “Your lips don’t have oil glands,” says Dr Day. So, it can be very difficult for your lips to retain moisture (that’s why they don’t ever get pimples, btw!). The absence of oil glands also means that your lips do not produce natural moisturising factors, or elements that keep your skin’s outer layer protected and hydrated.
In fact, your lips don’t have much of an outer layer at all. Dr Friedman points out that, unlike the rest of our skin, many areas of the lips do not have a stratum corneum (a.k.a. the top layer of skin). “This is kind of like our armor,” he says. “It’s an intricately woven barrier comprised of fats, proteins and dead skin cells.” This barrier is used to help protect the skin when it’s dry, and is also responsible for some of your body’s built-in UV protection. “It has an SPF of roughly five,” says Dr Friedman. (Who knew?)
You can usually fix the situation in two weeks with the right lifestyle changes. “However, if you see no improvement or if your lips get progressively worse, you should consider seeing a dermatologist,” says Dr Rodney. If your lips are naturally dry, she recommends being on the lookout for consistent signs of bleeding, large cracks, fissures, pain, and peeling that don’t get better for several weeks. If you find yourself constantly peeling off the skin on your lips or the dryness does not seem to stop with a medicated balm, you may need to check in with your doctor.
That said, there are other factors that could be contributing to your lips peeling — from diet to dire health conditions. Let’s talk through each one.
1. Your diet consists of a lot of salty or spicy foods
Big fan of snacks like pretzels or chips? They could be the reason for your peeling lips. Salty foods, particularly those that have a lot of salt on the outside that can end up on the lips, can definitely affect the skin in that area, says Dr Day. “Salt holds water, so it can absorb the water away from the lips and just dry them out,” she explains. Another food trigger? Spicy snacks. They can also cause skin irritation and water loss, adds Dr Day.
Treat it: Steer clear of salty foods for a while and let your lips heal by using a paraffin wax-based lip balm.
2. You’ve been licking your lips a bunch
This is probably the worst thing you can do for dry lips, says Dr Friedman. “Saliva is comprised of enzymes that are meant to break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, which are what your lips are made of,” he says. “You are literally digesting your lips when you do that.”
Treat it: Easy with the lip licking. Keep a lip moisturiser with you (in your pocket, gym bag, etc.) so that when you have the urge to lick, you swipe instead.
3. You fried your lips in the sun
Remember: Your lips are already missing that top later of skin with built-in UV protection. So if you’re out in the sun without an SPF lip balm on, chances are the skin on your lips will peel. “Sun cooks the water out of your skin and that can leave it drier in areas that are already naturally on the drier side,” says Dr Day. Plus, the inflammation from a sunburn can leave your lips peeling as skin cells turn over and try to replenish.
Treat it: You can rely on some of your typical sunburn remedies for chapped lips as well (think: aloe and anti-inflammatory meds).
4. You’re dehydrated
Because of the quick turnover of skin cells on the lips, you’re more prone to dryness if you aren’t properly hydrated, explains Dr Rodney. Technically, this can happen any time of year, but it’s more common in the winter, when dry indoor air can zap your skin (including the one on your lips) of natural moisture.
Treat it: Drink more water. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that women get about 11.5 cups of fluids a day, both from liquids and foods. Water is best, but other beverages count too.
5. You’re constantly exposed to dry air
Whether you live in an area with low humidity year round or you’re just sensitive to drops in moisture that can happen with the changing seasons, dry air could be why you have chapped lips. “The lack of moisture in the air, particularly in the winter, can cause dry lips,” says Dr Rodney.
Treat it: You can only do so much about the air around you, but Dr Rodney recommends a humidifier — which is specially designed to infuse your surroundings with moisture. She suggests running one around you, especially at night and during the winter months, to get relief.
6. Your medication is drying out your lips
Certain medications can easily cause dry, peeling lips. Dr Friedman says this is a common complaint for many of his clients using acne meds. “I tell my patients who are on Accutane that that’s the number one side effect—dry, cracked lips,” he says. “I tell them that they should be using a lip balm so often that their friends should be asking them, ‘What the heck is in that stuff that you’re using it so much?’”
It’s not just Accutane that can mess with your lips, though. These medications can also screw things up, according to Dr. Rodney:
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Common skincare ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, retinol, or salicylic acid
- Some OTC pain meds
Treat it: First, talk to your doctor about whether the meds you’re taking could cause dry lips. If that’s the case and you can’t stop taking your medication, be sure to follow DrFriedman’s advice to apply a moisturising lip balm to combat the side effects. If the peeling gets more severe, a trip to your MD might be worth it to make sure you’re not allergic to something you’re using.
7. You’re experiencing yeast overgrowth
Do you have an underbite? Or maybe you drool in your sleep? These factors can cause yeast overgrowth (and in turn, a yeast infection in the mouth area). This type of infection can lead to dry, flaky skin around the mouth — and sometimes even fissuring (small cracks on the corners of the mouth), says Dr Day.
Treat it: Like yeast infections anywhere else, a prescribed anti-fungal medication is your best bet. Consult a dermatologist.
8. You have actinic cheilitis
“This is a condition where the skin has been damaged from chronic sun exposure so much so that it can’t repair itself,” explains Dr Friedman. Actinic cheilitis is more common among older individuals.
It’s this sort of long-term sun damage and inflammation on the lips that can lead to skin cancer. “In this kind of dry, cracked area, it’s very easy for skin cancers to emerge, and so we do see a lot of squamous cell carcinomas in older individuals on the lower lip because of that,” notes Dr Friedman. Actinic cheilitis is characterised by dryness and scaly patches or plaques, typically on the lower lip, as mentioned.
Treat it: Treatment involves topical field therapy, or photodynamic light therapy, to either produce an immune response or kill off damaged skin cells. But first, your doctor will need to diagnose you via a skin biopsy.
9. You have a vitamin deficiency
“Various vitamin B deficiencies can result in dry, cracked, angry, red lips,” says Dr Friedman, and these are usually accompanied by a similar looking rash around the mouth. Dr Rodney points out that most cases come down to a B12 deficiency. This vitamin helps your body with cell growth, healing, and cell turnover — and a lack of B12 causes dryness and slows down healing, she explains.
“A vitamin C deficiency can also cause chapped lips, but this is rarer since most diets contain the recommended daily intake of vitamin C,” adds Dr Rodney.
Treat it: Through a blood test, your doctor will be able to determine what your exact vitamin deficiency is and prescribe necessary supplements (or suggest dietary adjustments) if you require them. If you’re lacking in B12, a B12 or B complex supplement can help get your levels back on track over time.
10. You’re having an allergic reaction or irritant contact dermatitis
An allergic reaction won’t only cause peeling, but also diffuse redness and swelling around the lips, says Dr Day. An allergic reaction is usually also itchy, rather than scaly. It could be caused by ingredients in your makeup, skincare, or even your toothpaste. “Cinnamic acid or cinnamon derivatives are a common allergen in toothpaste that people can get irritated lips from,” explains Dr. Friedman.
Irritant contact dermatitis, on the other hand, is caused by friction on the lips, brought on by metal mouth implants like retainers. “Metal implants or various composites of dental implants can be a chronic source of lip peeling,” notes Dr Friedman.
Treat it: A topical steroid or oral medication will usually do the trick for either issue.
11. You have lichen planus
Lichen planus is an inflammatory skin condition. It usually shows itself in the form of itchy, purple bumps on the body. “But it can also appear on the lips,” says Dr Friedman. And when it does, it usually shows up as purple or brownish cracked areas on the lips.
Treat it: A prescribed anti-inflammatory or topical steroid will help.
12. You have paraneoplastic pemphigus
This is a *very* rare condition, but we’re covering all the bases here! Paraneoplastic pemphigus is an “autoimmune blistering disease associated with underlying cancer,” says Dr Friedman. While it can appear in the form of a skin rash, the hallmark of this condition is erosive oral disease. Ttalk to your doc if you think your lips are showing signs of something more serious and blistering. With this particular condition, your lips will typically crack open and bleed, causing sores, redness, and swelling around the mouth.
Treat it: If you are diagnosed, your doctor will likely prescribe steroids and topical antibiotic ointment for the actual skin lesions and blisters and guide you through any other treatment necessary to address the underlying cancer if there is a malignancy.
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