10 Most Common Causes Of Chapped Lips

By Marisa Ramiccio. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

The feeling of dry skin is bad, but the feeling of dry, chapped lips is even worse. It’s a feeling that’s hard to get rid of quickly and it can drive you crazy.

But what exactly causes chapped lips?

Weather, wind and exposure usually cause your lips to dry. However, it’s not always the elements you have to worry about.

Below is a list of common causes of chapped lips, as well as a few conditions that might be confused for chronic chapped lips. Start with the conventional wisdom and move to causes you may not have thought of.

1. Licking Your Lips

When your lips feel dry and chapped, you want to lick them. But soon after licking them, they feel dry again, so you lick them once more. This turns into a continuing cycle of lip-dehydration, because saliva evaporates, more moisture from the lips escapes, making them even drier than before. Before long, there is a rough, dry, shrunken upper layer separated from the moist layer below it. Biting and chewing your lips can produce the same effect, so if you find yourself doing this often, try to kick the habit.

2. Dehydration

Lips don’t contain oil glands like your skin does, so they can dry to become chapped very easily. In fact, dry lips is also one of the signs of more widespread body dehydration. If you don’t drink enough during the day, your lips may become dry. What’s more, activities like skiing and motor boating, which combine wind and exposure to UV rays, can compound the situation leading to more water loss and chapping.

3. Not Protecting Them

Don’t forget your lips when applying sunscreen. Look for a lip balm that has sunblock in it for extra protection, or just put a bit of sunblock on your lips before you leave the house. Keeping your lips moisturized throughout the day with petroleum jelly or beeswax will help to keep them from drying out, too. Experts are skeptical about lip-balm addiction in that lips don’t become physiologically dependent on lip-balm, and sealing your lips in can help you heal.

Though most of us know when conditions are right for chapped lips, sometimes this is obvious only in hindsight. Make sure you mount a strong defense in situations like the following:

  • It’s winter and you live some place cold. Outside, your lips have to brave the dry wind and cold, and inside, heated air tends to be extremely dry. Moisturize those smackers!
  • It’s summer and you are out on a motorboat all day long, perhaps drinking a beer or a glass of wine or two. Dehydrating beverages + sun exposure + constant wind from boating = the perfect recipe for chapped lips.
  • You are on a windy beach, snow skiing or spending time in a dry sauna – whatever the time of year, whatever your activity, any combination of sun, wind, extremes of temperature and dryness can bring on that familiar sting around your lips that you don’t notice till day’s end.

4. Mouth Breathing

Perhaps you or your child has nasal allergies. Ever noticed your lips feel somewhat chapped when you have a cold that forces you to breath through your mouth all night long? The same thing happens when your child is stuffed up due to allergies. Having air constantly pass over your lips serves to dry them out. People who snore or have sleep apnea have this problem and frequently wake up with chapped lips. In each of these situations, it’s best to keep your lips moisturized throughout the day, especially before going to bed. And work with your doctor to correct the underlying problem.

5. Toothpaste

Many types of toothpaste contain the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate, and reports in popular media indicate this ingredient can be irritating enough to causing dryness and chapping of the lips. If you are struggling with chapped lips, try switching toothpaste, but also take a look at other products you use on your lips. Many have dehydrating alcohols in them, which you should also try to avoid.

6. Citrus and cinnamates

The acid in citrus fruits can irritate the lips. Tomato sauce can also be irritating and painful when someone already has chapped lips. Cinnamates, which are used in candy, gum and toothpaste, among other things, can also have the same effect.

7. Too much vitamin A

If you’re consuming too much vitamin A, or are taking too many supplements, this may be causing your chapped and pealing lips. If you take more than 25,000 IU of vitamin A per day, you’re consuming too much of this vitamin. By the way, dry cracked lips can also be associated with deficiencies of certain B vitamins.

8. Allergies

There are many allergies that can cause chapped lips including allergies to cobalt and nickel. If you take too many vitamin B12 supplements, you may develop an allergy to cobalt, which may lead to lips that are dry and appear crusty.

According to Audrey Kunin, a dermatologist featured on the Dr. Oz show, other ingredients in lipstick and toothpaste may also be to blame for your chapped lips. If your toothpaste contains guaiazulene, or if your lipstick contains propyl gallate or phenyl salicylate (salol), your chapped lips may actually be a reaction to these ingredients, and still other ingredients can result in a light allergy. It would be best to stop using these products and find others that don’t contain these ingredients. Allergies to foods or food ingredients, such as figs or red food dyes, may also cause chapped lips.

9. Medications

Certain prescription medications, like Accutane for acne or wrinkles, propranolol for blood pressure, or prochlorperazine for vertigo, can cause chapped lips.

10. Medical conditions

Autoimmune diseases may cause your lips to become sensitive to the sun and therefore, cause chapped lips, so if you have an autoimmune disease, wear a lip balm with SPF 15. A thyroid disease and psoriosis can also cause dryness of the lips. Perleche, or angular cheilitis, can cause dryness around the mouth as can diabetes. Those with Down’s syndrome commonly have dry, chapped lips as do those with actinic cheilitis, which is caused from too much sun exposure. The list goes on, so pay attention to any other symptoms and don’t hesitate to see an expert to help you do the detective work.

Next Steps

The above account for most chapped lips, but chapped lips can lead to other conditions such as lip-licking dermatitis and cheilitis (inflammation of the lips). Also, dry, cracked or chapped lips that don’t go away might be due to something else – including a variety of medial conditions. See a doctor if your chapped lips won’t go away or you have cracks in the corners of your mouth. Also consider potential irritants and allergens.

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