We Ask a Derm: Why Are My Lips Always Chapped?

Anyone else feel like they’re constantly dealing with dry, chapped lips? Rest assured, you’re certainly not alone in this—especially during the winter. “Though there are many causes for dryness and chapping, the most common reason is cold, dry weather,” says Dr. Robyn Gmyrek, Board-Certified Dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. 

“Dry winter weather is known to damage sensitive, exposed mucous membranes like those found in your lips,” adds Dr. Orit Markowitz, a board-certified dermatologist and an Associate Professor of Dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “Moisture loss is the leading cause for dry lips.” 

This creates a chain reaction, because most of us “have a tendency to lick our lips to moisten them, which makes the situation worse because our saliva is acidic and can cause further irritation,” says Gmyrek. “In addition to this, any moisture you temporarily get from licking your lips will evaporate into the dry environment, pulling more moisture from the lips with it and exacerbate the problem. Lip licking becomes habitual because the drier your lips feel, the more you lick them, and the more you lick them, the dryer your lips become,” she cautions.

In sum: Step one to ending the cycle of dryness is to stop licking your lips.

What are the most common symptoms of chapped lips?

  • Dryness
  • Flaking
  • Scales
  • Sores
  • Swelling
  • Cracks
  • Bleeding 

What causes chapped lips, doc?

According to Gymrek, other, less common causes for chapped lips include an allergic reaction to certain lip products or foods, a diet that consists of an excess of salty or spicy foods, a yeast infection, certain medications and sun damage (also known as “actinic chelitis”), which can be precancerous or thyroid disease.

Persistent dryness can also signal a vitamin deficiency in Vitamins B and C, iron, zinc and/or folic acid. “If you are deficient in these nutrients, you are more likely to present with dry lips, so ensuring that you keep a healthy diet can help prevent dry lips in the future,” says Markowitz. 

What can I do to treat chapped lips?

Again, because it bears repeating: Stop licking your lips. Kapeesh? Ditto for biting or picking at them.

Aside from this, both doctors agree that you should use a rich ointment or lip balm (think Vaseline or Aquaphor) multiple times throughout the day. “Look for thicker textures such as petroleum jelly and ingredients such as ceramides which help to heal compromised skin, dimethicone which hydrates and shea butter,” adds Gymrek.

“Sealant moisturizers are the best for treating dry lips because, as their name implies, they help to seal in moisture and prevent water loss,” says Markowitz. “Sometimes using a gentle sugar lip scrub like the Sara Happ lip scrub can help smooth things over, however, I would caution against too frequent scrubbing and always follow up any exfoliating with a nice layer of one of the sealant moisturizers mentioned above,” she adds. 

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re prone to chapped lips there are certain ingredients you should be on the lookout for. Gymrek warns against using any lip products that contain camphor, eucalyptus, citrus, menthol, mint, cinnamon or excessive fragrances or flavors, as they can cause further irritation. 

Is there a best time to use lip treatments?

As for timing of application, Dr. Markowitz recommends paying extra care to using your lip balm or ointment at night before sleeping and before heading outdoors for extended periods (i.e., exercising or winter sports). “Always use extra lip protection when you know you are going to be exposed to wind and cold,” she says. 

Same goes for if you plan on spending time in the sun. (Yes, even in the winter.) “Before you head out for the day, make sure to apply lip balms with a mineral-based sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, which usually have titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient in them,” advises Markowitz.

Anything else I should or shouldn’t do, doc?

However strong the temptation, “please do not pick at the dry skin on your lips,” exclaims Markowitz. As anyone who has ever picked at the dry flakes on their lips knows (so, that makes most of us, right?): You always run the risk of peeling more skin off than intended, which can injure your lips and cause them to look and feel even worse than they did before.

So, when you’re tempted to start picking, consider a gentle scrub or buff your lips with a wet, soft washcloth using circular motions to coax off any surface layer flakes. Again, go gentle, don’t overdo it, and always (always) follow up with a layer of balm to finish.

And last but not least, Markowitz also recommends keeping up with your water intake. “Staying well hydrated is important for dry lips and you can do this by drinking at least eight glasses of water per day,” she says. (We’ve also found that sleeping with a humidifier by our beds has been helpful at keeping both our lips and the rest of our skin more hydrated during the winter.)

Jenny Jin Headshot Vertical 2023

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...