Licking your lips in the dry winter air? Cut it out. According to pros, this can lead to an uncomfy condition called “lick eczema,” which is the last thing any of us want to be dealing with from now through spring.
Known as eczematous dermatitis in science-speak, the condition is a type of irritant contact dermatitis that's caused by licking your lips. It's characterized by dryness, inflammation and redness, scarring, peeling, cracking, itching, and burning, and can affect both your lips and the area around them.
Unlike standard eczema (aka atopic dermatitis), it isn't a chronic condition, but it is similarly common during the winter months because cold weather can dry out your lips. “It is common for people to lick their upper lip to decrease its dryness, which leads to the vicious cycle of wetting and drying and eventually, eczema,” says Alexander Zuriarrain, MD double board-certified plastic surgeon with Zuri Plastic Surgery.
If you’re licking your chapped lips, the wet-dry-wet-dry cycle with saliva “causes a significant amount of inflammation,” says Dr. Zuriarrain. Because the lip’s surface doesn’t have oil glands, there’s no natural lubrication, so the “vicious cycle” of licking “causes cracking and the breakdown of the natural skin surface/barrier,” he says.
Board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, corroborates this. “The skin of the lips is thin and delicate, and it does not contain oil glands like the rest of the skin, so this makes it particularly prone to drying out,” she says. “This gets exacerbated during the winter because the humidity in the air decreases, so more moisture evaporates from the skin into the air — And exposure to wind makes this worse as well.”
If you have these lick eczema symptoms but haven’t been licking your lips, there could be other culprits for perioral dermatitis (aka irritation around the mouth), like traditional eczema or an allergic reaction to something like toothpaste, medication, or food.
How the right lip balm can help
Depending on your specific breed of lick eczema, a lip balm may be all you need to calm things down. “Treatment revolves around identifying and eliminating the cause of the eczema—the treatment can vary greatly depending on the type of lip eczema that you have,” says Dr. Zuriarrain. “If it is due to licking the lip, a lip balm or emollients can help calm down the lips and reduce any itching and inflammation.”
If this is the case, it’s critically important that you choose the right product—don’t just grab whatever lip balm is lying around at the bottom of your bag and hope for the best (doctor’s orders!). “Make sure you are using a lip balm that contains emollients and occlusives [in addition to humectants],” says Dr. King. The reason? “Lip balms that contain only humectant ingredients—such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin—can actually make lips more dry, because they attract moisture. if the air is very low in humidity, then they can pull moisture out of the skin, and then the moisture evaporates away.” With that in mind, you'll want to look for a formula that includes a triple-threat of hydrators.
“Emollients, such as ceramides, support the skin barrier; Humectants, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, attract moisture; And occlusives, such as petrolatum, bee’s wax, and coconut oil, create a physical barrier to prevent moisture loss," says Dr. King. "Without the occlusives, the moisture pulled out by the humectants will evaporate from the skin, and the lips will be left drier than they were before.”
Additionally, there are a few common lip balm ingredients you'll want to stay away from: Menthol and alcohol, which are drying, and salicylic acid and essential oils, which can cause irritation.
Additional tips for treating lick eczema
1. Stop licking (and picking!)
This probably feels obvious, but it’s important to remember (especially as the temptation to lick your dry lips sets in). “[Licking] may temporarily feel soothing, but it will only dry your lips out more,” says Dr. Zurrain. “The saliva evaporates quickly and leaves your lips drier than they were before.” Aside from avoiding licking, you’ll also want to avoid picking at the dry skin around your mouth at all costs. “The delicate skin won’t heal if the dry parts are continually picked off,” says Dr. King.
2. Break out the humidifier
Both docs suggest using a humidifier at home, which will help keep your lips from drying out in the first place. “Keep the air in your home moist by using a humidifier, particularly in your bedroom at night,” says Dr. King.
3. Adjust your skin-care routine
To avoid compromising the skin barrier around your lips (which will make the area more prone to irritation), you’ll want to choose your products wisely. Opt for a gentle cleanser, and avoid “perfumed, dyed, and alcohol-based lip and facial products,” says Dr. Zuriarrain. You’ll also want to stay away from harsh exfoliants, because “the dead skin needs to stay on until the new skin underneath is ready to be exposed,” says Dr. King. Finally, finish off your routine with a solid moisturizer that contains “humectants to hydrate, emollients to support the skin barrier, and occlusives to help lock in moisture,” says Dr. King.
4. Protect your skin
In addition to strengthening your skin barrier with your products, you’ll also want to cover up the area any time you go outside to protect it from irritation from the environment (looking at you, cold, dry air). Dr. King recommends wearing a scarf or mask over your mouth to avoid further irritation.
5. See a derm
As with most skin conditions, if your lick eczema isn’t improving after you’ve taken all of the above measures, it’s probably a good idea to make an appointment with a derm. They may prescribe “topical corticosteroids, which can be applied when necessary to help reduce inflammation,” as well as “LomaLux pills, a homeopathic mineral formulation to reduce inflammation,” says Dr. King. You can also talk to them about UV light and phototherapy treatments that can help reinvigorate the skin, as well as antihistamine products that offer itch relief.
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