Chapped Lips (Crack, Rough, Sore) Causes and Remedies

It is one of the most common lip problems and most of us think that it is just a winter problem but chapped lips can strike at any time. The lips are very sensitive to environmental factors when compared to skin on the rest of the face. This difference is one of the main reasons why the lips are prone to drying and cracking. It is a simple problem that is easily remedied and prevented but most of us do not give our lips the same care as our skin.

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What are chapped lips?

Chapped lips simply refers to cracking, roughness and soreness of lips often associated with drying. It is medically known as cheilitis simplex. Chapped lips is a common winter problem due to the dryness of the air but can occur in any season and at anytime if the lips are not well take care of. Understandably it is more likely to occur in dry environments and with sun exposure. Sometimes chapping may be due to dehydration, mouth breathing, smoking and constant biting or picking at the lips.

There are cases where chapped lips are due to medical problems like nutritional deficiencies, allergies, contact with irritants, infections and certain drugs. Sometimes chapped lips particularly severe forms may also present with a dry rash around the mouth which is known as perioral dermatitis. Most cases of chapped lips do not require medical treatment. However, is simple remedies and preventative measures do not resolve and stop further lip drying then medical advice should be sought.

chapped lips

Causes of Chapped Lips

Common chapped lips (cheilitis simplex) is due to primarily to drying and trauma. Other types like angular cheilitis, actinitic cheilitis, infectious cheilitis, eczematous cheilitis, drug-related cheilitis and exfoliative cheilitis are due to various other causes. The skin over the lips lack the oil glands seen on most of the skin over the body. It therefore cannot moisturize itself. Furthermore the skin is thinner than skin elsewhere on the face, with only about one-third of the skin layers. It also has less melanin (skin pigment) which makes it more prone to injury from UV light.

Environmental Factors

Wind, cold and dry air causes rapid drying of the skin on the lips since it lacks the natural moisturizing mechanism of skin elsewhere on the face. The dry skin eventually cracks and peels exposing the delicate underlying tissue which is sensitive. It causes soreness and in severe cases even bleeding of the lips.

Mouth Breathing

Mouth breathing cause the same drying effect of the skin on the lips due to the flow of air in and out of the mouth. The main cause of mouth breathing is nasal congestion, which may be acute like in the common cold or chronic like with perennial allergic rhinitis or a deviated septum. Respiratory diseases and certain heart conditions are other causes as a person may breathe through their mouth in order to increase air intake. Smoking causes a similar effect due to the movement of smoke and air through the mouth.

Dehydration

The loss of water in the body also causes drying of the skin and therefore the lips. Dehydration arises for various reasons. The more common causes of dehydration includes fluid loss from profuse diarrhea and vomiting as is the case in acute gastroenteritis, excessive perspiration due to physical activity and hot weather or with drastically increased urination as may occur with certain kidney diseases, diabetes and diuretics (“water pills”).

Sun Damage

The lips are just as prone to sun damage as skin elsewhere on the face, if not more so due to its lower melanin concentration. Overexposure to UV light can even lead to a more severe lip problem known as solar cheilosis or actinic cheilitis. It is not only the sun that may be a problem. UV light from tanning beds and booths, as well as from arc welding can be also be a problem.

Trauma

Trauma to the lips can occur in various ways but the more common means is by lip biting. Most of us bite our lips when we are anxious while some people repeatedly bite their lips as a habit. Picking on the skin of the lips is another habit although not as common as biting. Poorly fitting dentures or braces can also cause repeated lip trauma.

Remedies for Chapped Lips

The cause of the chapping first needs to be attended to an removed or any remedy will only be short-acting.

  • Do not suck your lips. The saliva can hasten drying and cracking.
  • Apply lip balm to protect the lips and seal cracks. Balms with dimethicone and petrolatum are more effective.
  • Drink more water when dehydration is the cause of chapped lips.
  • Avoid being close to air conditioning as it can speed up the drying effect.
  • Make a conscious effort to breathe through the mouth if there is no congestion of the nose.

One the cracking eases, it is important to prevent further chapping as discussed below.

Prevention of Lip Chapping

One of the simplest and most effective ways of preventing lip chapping is to regularly apply an appropriate lip balm. The drier the lips the more frequently the lip balm should be applied. The lips need the same preventative measures as the skin to avoid sun damage. A lip balm that provides UV protection (sunscreen for the lips) should always be used when outdoors or exposed to ultraviolet light from artificial sources. A wide-brimmed hat can also offer some protection against sunlight and sometimes a scarf or ski mask may be needed to reduce exposure to the environment.

It may be worthwhile using a humidifier indoors in very dry climates. These devices increase the moisture in the air and reduce dry lips and subsequent chapping. Certain substances in lipsticks and lip gloss can irritate the skin or trigger allergic reactions which may hasten drying. These substances should be avoided if it is a problem. Always use prescribed medication to treat nasal congestion if mouth breathing is leading to dry and chapped lips.