We all own at least one or two tubes of the stuff, but many of us feel like we actually have an unhealthy reliance on lip balm. Balm addict Ava Welsing-Kitcher investigates if excessive use is doing more harm than good, and the best lip balms for dry lips with the most effective ingredients.
I was four years old when I first got my hands on a tube of lip balm, and I remember it better than I can remember yesterday’s Pret lunch. The colourful packaging was mesmerising. As I grew up, other kids started pinching packets of Chewits, but I would slip tubes of Chapstick into my pocket while my mum’s back was turned in Boots.
I’d seen grown-ups applying it, and at school the Year 6 girls traded fruity ones in the playground. Twenty years later I’m still loading up on lip balm, but now it’s by legitimate means.
As I write this, my gaze wanders across my lip balm-laden desk. They’re everywhere – cylinders of Burt’s Bees, Glossier ones shaped like paint tubes, a few medicinal versions in my desk drawer. They’re in every coat pocket, bag and room in my flat. I keep one next to my toothbrush (reapplying it has replaced mouthwash in my dental routine).
There are also a few on my bedside table. Swiping on lip balm is the first and last thing I do every day and I don’t stop in between. I reach for a lip balm at least once every half hour meaning I use it almost 30 times a day.
While friends and family have questioned my habit, I’ve discovered that my dependence isn’t that extreme. Lip Balm Anonymous, a tongue-in-cheek forum created to help ‘addicts’ manage their compulsion, brings up photo-documented attempts to quit, debates about ingredients, cosmetic company conspiracy theories and a 12-step recovery programme.
One user even admitted that accidentally smearing greasy balm on her work phone led to her being fired from her call centre job. It makes me realise I’m not alone. Even #lipbalmaddict has 15,400 posts on Instagram.
Sure, lip balm’s a staple for almost everyone, but for many – me included – the repetitive action of opening, applying then closing it soothes us in a way that feels so right it’s wrong. But is it possible to develop a proper addiction? “It doesn’t contain any chemical addictive substance, so technically you can’t develop a physical addiction to lip balm,” explains Perry Romanowski, cosmetic scientist and author of Can You Get Hooked On Lip Balm?.
“It is possible, however, to develop an addiction-like behaviour of applying it, similar to biting your nails or twisting your hair.” But what makes the act of slathering it on so appealing? “Putting it on immediately makes your lips feel, taste and smell good depending on the product, and when that sensation wears off, the skin noticeably feels drier and you feel compelled to fix that,” says Romanowski.
Like extreme obsessive compulsive disorder, I wonder if this cycle could potentially become harmful for one’s mental wellbeing. But, according to Jane Caro, programme leader at the Mental Health Foundation, it’s unlikely. “For some, it can be an automatic, self-soothing mechanism (like washing hands), and so it isn’t anything to worry about as it’s not physically detrimental,” she says.
“However, if you’re concerned about your lip balm habit, or it’s disturbing any part of your life, it’s worth questioning whether there are other underlying issues that need to be looked at.”
I apply lip balm in the belief that it’s both a short and long-term solution to dryness, but – as I’ve learnt – it’s more complicated than that due to both the physiological nature of lips and the ingredients we’re choosing to cover them with. “The external barrier of skin on the lips is around four times thinner than the skin on the face,” says Dr Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor.
“This delicate surface layer also lacks oil-producing sebaceous glands, meaning it struggles to produce natural moisturisation and is prone to dryness.” For this exact reason, dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk doesn’t advise quitting lip balm. “Lip balm helps strengthen the [external] barrier, promotes healing and prevents future irritation,” she explains. “Avoiding lip balm altogether might make you lick your lips to moisturise instead, which dries the skin out and can cause dermatitis or eczema.”
It’s good to know that I don’t need to give up my habit entirely, but am I in fact overloading with a menagerie of unhelpful ingredients? “Peppermint oil, salicylic acid and perfumes like limonene and linalool are commonly found in many [lip balm] formulas,” explains dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.
“Due to the alcohol content in perfume and the exfoliating properties of acid, they can actually exacerbate dryness or cause irritation and inflammation, especially peppermint oil. We reach for lip balm to temporarily relieve this discomfort, but this then dries lips out even further.”
So is it the formula, rather than the frequency, that’s the problem? In theory, the ideal balm would have a triple-threat complex of occlusive, emollient and humectant components. However, ingredients aren’t categorised as such on the label and most formulas have only one or two of these elements covered. Humectants bring water to the skin, while occlusive and emollient ingredients stop it evaporating and replenish lost lipids. Look for a combination of at least two of these for truly effective moisturisation and avoid large amounts of those aforementioned irritants.
Petroleum jelly gets a bad rap for drying lips out further, but it’s a very effective occlusive that seals in moisture when it’s combined or layered over humectant and emollient ingredients. Similarly, animal ingredients like lanolin and beeswax have come under scrutiny for not being vegan, but their ability to span all three categories is second to none.
Once you’ve got the right balance of moisture and sealant, the final step is SPF – the skin on the lips is lighter than anywhere else on the body due to a lack of melanin-producing skin cells (their colour comes from blood showing through the near-transparent skin), so the lips are particularly susceptible to UV damage.
The answer to curing that endless cycle of apply, dry, apply? Checking your labels and stopping the mindless application. It’s worked for me. I’ve stopped licking my lips and I’m shopping smarter, meaning I don’t often feel the impulse to reapply as often. My lips are softer and less sensitive and even though the four-year-old me might be disappointed, I’m finally beating my habit.
The vital ingredients
How they work: Occlusives form a protective layer over skin, preventing exposure to harsh weather and sealing in moisture.
Ingredients to look for: Petrolatum, beeswax, paraffin, silicone (dimethicone), alcohols (stearyl, cetyl), vegetable wax (carnauba, palm kernel)
Caudalie Lip Conditioner
This 99% natural balm contains beeswax, shea butter, and a hint of vanilla.
Caudalie Lip Conditioner, £5.50
Vaseline Cocoa Butter Lip Therapy
Cocoa butter blends with petroleum jelly to nourish and protect lips - layer over a humectant balm for a deep conditioning treatment.
Glossier Balm Dot Com
Despite containing colour and flavour, this tinted balm is the furthest thing from our pre-teen cherry Coke Lip Smacker. Wear alone or over lipstick – beeswax and castor seed oil condition while giving the subtlest of sheens.
Palmer's Coconut Oil Formula Lip Balm
Coconut oil and cocoa butter form an effective barrier over lips to lock in moisture, with the most divine tropical smell.
Natruline Vegan Lip Balm
This 100% natural balm is vegan-friendly with carnauba and castor seed oil waxes.
Natruline Vegan Lip Balm, £2.99
How they work: Humectants attract water molecules to the skin and hold them there. Combine with occlusives or emollients to prolong moisture.
Ingredients to look for: Hyaluronic acid, lanolin, glycerine, gelatin, honey, panthenol, urea, propylene glycol
Lanolips Tinted Lip Balm
It’s won countless awards and for good reason. This non-sticky, high-shine balm is rich in lanolin, cacao seed butter while providing a hit of colour.
Lanolips Tinted Lip Balm, £8.99
La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 Soothing Repairing Balm
This multi-purpose balm contains panthenol (or vitamin B5), thermal spring water and glycerine to repair skin anywhere on your body, not just lips. Its matte finish makes it perfect for layering under lipstick, too.
Dr Dennis Gross Hyaluronic Marine Collagen Lip Cushion
Don’t be alarmed that this formula feels more like a mattifying primer than a lip balm – that’s the dimethicone, a smoothing type of silicone that forms a moisture-locking barrier over skin. Underneath, the hyaluronic acid and nourishing plant oils get to work their magic.
Burt's Bees Honey Lip Balm
Often hailed as the holy grail of lip balm, Burt’s Bees 100% natural formula perfectly blends occlusive beeswax and coconut oil with humectant lanolin for maximum moisturisation.
Burt’s Bees Honey Lip Balm, £3.99
How they work: These oils and lipids (similar to those found in our skin) hydrate and soften skin and create a protective barrier when applied heavily.
Ingredients to look for: Vegetable oils (grapeseed, jojoba, coconut, castor, shea), collagen, elastin, lanolin
Dr Lipp Original Nipple Balm
Originally created to soothe sore nipples, this multipurpose balm is a saviour for dry, cracked lips, too.
Eucerin Dry Skin Intensive Lip Balm
This formula is ideal to help reduce redness and irritation.
Olio E Osso No.1 Clear Balm
Perfect for elbows, lips, cuticles, and even as a natural highlighter, this stick is rich in fatty acids from olive and shea oils.
BYBI Babe Balm
Coenzyme Q1 and vitamin C-rich hibiscus oil mend damaged skin, while emollient shea butter and fruit wax seal and smooth. It also tames brows and removes make-up, plus the sugar cane packaging is completely biodegradable. Winner.
BYBI Babe Balm, £18