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Many lip balms contain ingredients that peel lips and promote habitual use


Updated: 2008/03/05 PM 1:05:39   Comments (1)

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Figure 1.  Salicylic acid crystals from diethyl ether. 
Salicylic acid is an exfoliant found in many lip balms.
Many lip balms contain exfoliants (but not fiberglass!)
"Dr. Monte Meltzer is the chief of dermatology at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. He says lip balm often includes ingredients that cause a tingling, such as salicylic acid, phenol and menthol. Some of these are exfoliants that cause lips to peel. In turn, the lips become thinner and less able to protect against the elements. So people need to apply again, and the vicious cycle continues."[1]

"Which helps explain why you can diligently apply "medicated" lip balm several times a day and still suffer from chapped lips. The tingling sensation you get from those products usually comes from menthol, camphor or phenol. "All those things are drying and irritating," says Paula Begoun, a well-known critic of the cosmetics industry whose new book, "The Beauty Bible" (Beginning Press, $16.95), is due out this month. She says she suspects that these ingredients are routinely used "to make the consumer think something is happening. If you want a cooling sensation, drink some cold water."

Known as counter-irritants, camphor and menthol dry out the lips, a necessary step for healing cold sores, but too extreme for ordinary dryness. Phenol's main purpose is to kill bacteria and help prevent infections and should be used only in severe cases, not on a daily basis. Users, meanwhile, often find the pleasant tingling habit-forming. "You get so accustomed to that cooling, soothing sensation, that it's like, `Yeah, I need that in my life all the time,' " says Gordon Espinet, a makeup artist for Toronto-based M.A.C. cosmetics and a dry-lip sufferer. Subjected to this constant irritation, it's not surprising that your lips don't get any better."Read what that product says it does and use it for that reason," says Espinet, who recommends M.A.C.'s medicated Lip Treatment for cold sores and severely chapped lips and a Vitamin E lipstick for milder cases of dryness. "When it says to heal lips, don't get into the habit of using it when lips are at their best."[5]

"Paying for Lip Service" Newsday November 13, 1997

Dermatologist Dr. Monte Meltzer
Lips naturally exfoliate every 28 days
"Alpha hydroxy acids, which were previously regarded as too harsh for the lips, have now been formulated to exfoliate this delicate membrane. Lip Revitalizer from Blistex ($1.89 at drugstores), introduced in October, contains two alpha hydroxy acids (lactic and glycolic acids) in a creamy base that you squeeze through a slanted applicator directly onto your lips. "The whole idea is that it gets rid of flakiness on the lips and very fine lines," says Dr. Charles Zugerman, an associate professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and a consultant to Blistex. He recommends the product for both healing chapped lips and for ongoing lip maintenance. Be warned that Lip Revitalizer does have an enticing minty flavor that may cause you to lick your lips more, which only aggravates dryness (emphasis added)."[5]

"Would a dermatologist prescribe salicylic acid for chapped lips? "I wouldn't," said Dr. Sadick, who is the personal dermatologist for Hub Music's very own Treblchick. "It is a peeling agent, so it would help cold sores, but someone with chapped lips wants a lubricant, not an exfoliant."[4]

Lip balm makers say small amounts of exfoliants don't hurt

"No way, say balm makers, who take the lip-balm addiction story so seriously they aggressively thrust and parry. Carmex devotes part of its Web site to "Myths" knocking down the addiction charge, as well as more far-fetched Internet legends about the product causing cancer or containing fiberglass or a "terrible acid."[3]

Zugerman says salicylic acid, phenol and menthol are used in small concentrations of 1 percent or less and do not cause lip thinning in those amounts. Counters [Dr.] Meltzer: The tingling sensation is evidence of lip thinning, as less dead-skin tissue makes the lips more sensitive."[1]


  1. Bingeing on balm, or hip lip service?  Associated Press  Published January 22, 2006
  2. http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/weblog/comments/3926/
  3. http://www.carma-labs.com/#/FAQs/
  4. http://www.kevdo.com/lipbalm/addict.html
  5. November 13, 1997 issue of Newsday. "Paying for Lip Service,"

External Links:

  1. A Gallery of Salicylic Acid Photomicrographs

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By: gsm on 2009/10/26 AM 4:14:45.

I've applied pure petroleum jelly as a lip balm and have gotten addicted to that. So I don't think the primary problem is the special ingredients. I believe the nerves in the lips adjust to the thick layer of protection by becoming more sensitive. When the protection thins the nerves are still sensitive and thus become irritated and initiate an inflammation response. I have found that transferring oil from other areas of skin to the lips with a finger provides a thin layer of protection that doesn't cause problems.

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