For several years, Dan, a 26-year-old in California, couldn’t break free from the vicious cycle of chapped lips. Every time he’d go a few days without properly hydrating or protecting his lips from the sun, they’d get dry. And when they’d get dry, he’d instinctively lick them, which dried them out so badly that they’d begin to crack and bleed. For the next two weeks then, he’d make a concerted effort to get them back to normal — only to start the cycle all over again.
Everything changed, though, last winter when his now ex-girlfriend suggested he exfoliate his lips to “scrub off the dead, flaky skin” instead.
In the last three years, sales of lip scrubs have exploded as consumers like Dan search for any solution beyond chapstick. As such, major manufacturers like Burt’s Bees have gotten into the game with their own versions of “lip scrubs.” The thing is, brand-name lip exfoliants cost up to $30 for half an ounce, and require twice-weekly treatments to “smooth” and “brighten” lips.
Given that price, the DIY skincare crowd has taken the lip-scrub concept and run with it, posting things on social media like, “Brushing your lips gently with a toothbrush every day will make them smoother in a healthier way than using lip balm.”
But this, according to dermatologist Susan Bard, is a bad idea. Setting aside the fact that your toothbrush is full of bacteria, scrubbing your lips with it will do way more damage than what your lips already face from daily wear-and-tear. “Chapped lips are due to dryness and irritation, which can be prevented and treated with frequent application of bland emollients and avoiding flavored lip products and other irritants,” Bard explains.
Basically, if you take exfoliating scrubs to already-damaged skin, you’re just doing more damage.
What about Dan, though, who only exfoliates his lips when absolutely necessary, and swears it works? “Particularly after I shave, my lips tend to get really dry,” he tells me. “So I wait for the dryness to slough off, mix a dab of honey with a pinch of brown sugar and scrub my lips,” he explains. “They’re suddenly super soft again!”
Unfortunately, per Bard, it’s mostly in his head (face?). As she explains, the tissue making up your lips isn’t skin, but mucosa, which means it’s inaccurate to claim exfoliants remove skin from your lips, since “it’s not an area where skin tends to build up.” If anything, she adds, avid exfoliation is “triggering the phenomenon and creating the vicious cycle in the first place.”
“Simply put, there is no reason to exfoliate your lips at all,” she continues. “If they’re chapped despite hydration and moisturization, apply a little over-the-counter 1-percent hydrocortisone ointment to resolve any underlying inflammation that can be contributing.”
In short, lip exfoliants are too good to be true. You’re better off just lathering up that mouth of yours with Vaseline every night.
Surprisingly, Dan agrees. There is, however, one reason why he won’t completely abandon his lip-care routine. “Overall, I contend that plain petroleum jelly is better for painful, bleeding lips,” he tells me. “But honey and sugar always come in the clutch to clean up the dead skin — and best of all, they’re delicious!”