Lip balm: 6 ingredients to look for, 6 ingredients to avoid

by Anne Stein | May 08, 2014

When shopping for the perfect lip balm, avoid brands with fragrances and artificial color, which can cause lip irritation.

Winter’s a tough time for lips. Many of us find ourselves reaching for lip moisturizer more often as the dry, cold air outside and dry, often too-hot air inside irritates our lips. There are dozens of lip balms on the market, and the key to keeping your lips moisturized — without needing to constantly reapply — is finding the right ingredients.

We asked Dr. Aleksandar Krunic, a dermatologist at Swedish Covenant Hospital and dermatology professor at University of Illinois College of Medicine (Chicago) and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, to explain how lip moisturizer works, what ingredients you should look for and what you should avoid. Finally, we asked, how much is too much when it comes to those of us who seemingly feel the need to apply it quite often?

Lip balm (and we’re referring to the stuff in a small pot or tube) is a moisturizer designed for the lips. Lip skin is more prone to irritation than hand skin or other parts of the body where moisturizer is applied, so lip moisturizers need to be less irritating and lighter than the thicker, greasier lotions we use on hands, arms and legs.

Chapped lips start with scaling skin and can progress to cracks, redness and bleeding. Lips tend to get chapped in the winter because the air is especially dry and cold and the lips are constantly in contact with saliva — especially if you lick them. Water dries the skin and removes the layer of skin oil that’s a skin protectant.

Lip moisturizers seal moisture in and protect your lips from dry air and cold temps. If there’s sunscreen in your lip moisturizer (and there should be, says Krunic), you’ll also protect yourself from sun damage.

One brand Krunic recommends is Aquaphor Lip Repair. He also said plain Vaseline is an extremely effective and non-irritating lip moisturizer.

Whatever brand you buy, look for a simple list of ingredients that can include the following:
  • Paraben-free
  • Moisturizers like Vaseline, beeswax (cera alba), ceramides (fats that help retain water)
  • Up to 5 percent of humectants — which increase water content, help prevent cracked skin and reduce skin irritation — like urea or glycerin
  • Dimethicone, which helps prevent drying and makes the product last longer
  • Lanolin and cocoa butter soften, moisturize and protects lips
  • Sunscreen
Ingredients to avoid:
  • Fragrances and artificial colors can cause lip irritation
  • Menthol, camphor and phenol cool and anesthetize the lips, but can also dry your lips and/or produce redness and swelling
  • Alcohol is also a drying ingredient
  • Salicylic acid exfoliates and relieves pain but don’t use if you’re allergic to aspirin
  • Aloe butter moisturizes, heals and soothes, but can irritate lips
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant and anti-aging, but can irritate lips
Krunic recommends applying lip balm four to six times a day, or anytime you feel your lips are dry, itchy or irritated — no matter what the season.

If you find yourself wanting to apply lip balm more often, Krunic says it’s likely due to using ingredients that are drying or irritating, or due to the formation of a habit.

Dr. Katie Hanson, health psychologist at Swedish Covenant Hospital, likens it to any behavior that you regularly perform. "After you go to the bathroom, if you don’t wash your hands, your hands might feel weird because you haven’t done that extra behavior that you normally do," she said.

Since frequent application won’t harm you, unless you’re using ingredients that cause irritation, the habit is more of an inconvenience than something to worry about.

Moisturizing your lips is a winter essential. Just be sure to use the right ingredients on this extra-sensitive area for best results.

Dr Krunic was recently featured in the Today Health & Wellness article “EOS lip balm caused blisters, rash, lawsuit claims," where you can read more about the do's and don'ts of lip moisturizing.