Plenty of factors can cause cheilitis, the technical term for inflammation of the lips, or cheilitis simplex (chapped lips). Some of the most common: exposure to saliva, water, sun, wind, and cold. Essentially, these outside forces can zap the lips of their natural moisturizing barrier, which is rich in water-insoluble lipids. “Anything that disrupts that lipid barrier may lead to dryness and irritation,” explains Augusta-based dermatologist Lauren Ploch.
We know what you’re thinking: sun, wind, cold — that pretty much sums up every season. Water and saliva? Unavoidable. To keep lips feeling good, we wanted to find which balms included a moisturizing agent to restore the lipid barrier and/or a barrier agent that acts like a seal to ensure no natural moisture is lost.
How We Found the Best Lip Balm?
We began our search by poring over every Best Of list we could find, from Seventeen to Elle, totalbeauty.com to realsimple.com, noting every formula covered. Our starting point: a list of 177 lip balms — from run-of-the-mill ChapStick to formulas from luxury beauty brands — all available for purchase nationwide at a wide variety of retailers.
A single question drove our research: Does this lip balm really work? Our main focus was on which formulas moisturized the most, be it with hydrating ingredients like ceramides, beeswax, and oils, barrier agents such as petrolatum and dimethicone.
We also wanted to find a lip balm that could protect delicate lips from the elements — particularly sun — and appeal to a broad audience: tints, flavors, and gloss didn’t make it far.
Our first step was to take a deep dive into the balms’ individual ingredients, and we quizzed aestheticians and dermatologists on what to look for and what to avoid.
We nixed anything with camphor, phenol, or menthol.
These ingredients in so-called “medicated” lip balms bring on a tingly, cooling sensation — one most of us associate (wrongly) with winter-worn lips becoming moisturized.
“We often use phenol in cosmetic chemical peels,” says Ploch. The acid acts as an exfoliant, and, in theory, exfoliating flaky lips is a good thing. “But dry, chapped lips need repair, not exfoliation. Therefore, phenol can cause severe irritation,” she explains. Menthol and camphor are what provide that temporary cooling sensation and work to numb or anesthetize the lips — but they can actually burn when applied to chapped skin. All of this can make the lips more sun-sensitive, too, Ploch adds.
That tingly feeling is pretty popular though: We found formulas from some of the biggest names in balms, including Carmex, Blistex, SoftLips, and ChapStick, contained at least one of these three ingredients.
And avoided the most common allergens.
Allergens can be tricky to target — an ingredient you love may make your best friend break out in hives. But our experts helped us pinpoint the most common irritants, and if those ingredients didn’t contribute to a more-moisturizing balm, we gave it the boot.
We were surprised the list included vitamin E. While this antioxidant is lauded for its anti-aging properties — and thus is often touted as a stand-out lip balm ingredient to combat fine lines around the lips — “in terms of hydration versus dryness, it’s actually pretty neutral,” says Ploch. Peter Lio, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, adds this fun fact: A 2001 dermatological study found an astoundingly high 33 percent of participants experienced contact dermatitis (an itchy allergic reaction) to vitamin E, which is why we left behind familiar formulas from EOS, Neutrogena, Maybelline, and Burt’s Bees.
Fragrances and dyes were more obvious to cut: While they’re not all bad, they are common irritants, and tints and scents also tend to be drying — even if they are all-natural. As the 2016 class-action lawsuit against EOS Lip Balm shows, a product that claims to be 99 percent natural, organic, and gluten-free can still result in contact dermatitis. Even scents you loved in the past might not be fair game, says Lio. “Many people can become allergic to certain fragrance mixes over time,” he explains, “which can result in red, swollen, and itchy lips.”
Beeswax is one of the ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction, but because its moisturizing benefits are so great (and it’s such a common ingredient in lip balm) we decided not to eliminate products that included it. That said, beeswax often contains propolis, a natural “glue” made by honey bees to build their hives, which has been shown to be an increasingly common irritant, so we made sure to look for an option without it.
Lanolin is another one: a moisturizing alcohol derived from wool that has been linked to contact dermatitis in some people. While we didn’t actively eliminate any products with lanolin, that ingredient didn’t show up in any of our top picks — so no worries there.
We looked for balms that did the most moisturizing with the fewest ingredients.
We found plenty of our remaining options contained as few as four materials, while the most complex — such as the “intensively reparative” La Mer Lip Balm — boasted 52. Aside from the outliers, our list at this point consisted of a solid group with 10 to 15 ingredients, and a second set that had up to four times that. We lobbed off that second set, separating the simpler formulas from the more extreme.
Some hands-on sampling helped narrow the field. Any with a strong scent — think lemongrass, pomegranate, or “sliced peach” — were easy cuts. This knocked out all six tubes of Kiss My Face, which, with Badger, was the most prevalent brand in our top 25 balms.
Any balm that left a lot of shine, sheen, or color on the lips was out — sorry Smith’s Rosebud Salve. Oddly shaped tubes too bulky for pockets were also set aside unless their scent and overall feel trumped the inconvenience. (All our EOS contenders were cut before hands-on testing, but still: in what universe are those golf balls the right idea?!)
Did You Know?
There’s another reason to go flavorless.
Kiss My Face flew through all of our initial cuts with solid ingredient lists containing moisturizing powerhouses like beeswax, coconut oil, and aloe. In the end, its flavors (Cranberry Orange, Sliced Peach, Ginger Mango) knocked it out of the running, initially because we thought they were too strong to appeal to everyone.
As it turns out, though, even if you love everything ginger-mango, you’re better off skipping lip balms that may encourage you to lick your lips. Not only does saliva dry your lips out, but also the act “can also cause what’s called ‘lip-lickers dermatitis,’ an eczema-like rash around the lips,” says Ploch.
It’s possible to become addicted to lip balm.
Sort of. “There is something to the psychological addiction to lip balm,” explains Dr. Lio. “I myself have been stuck in a rut before, where if I didn’t have my lip balm on me, my lips would feel dry and uncomfortable!”
So we’re not talking a chemical dependence, or even the Great Carmex Conspiracy, an urban legend from the ‘90s that claimed Carmex was full of tiny shards of glass to make users more dependent on it. But it is possible to compulsively use your balm — even when your lips don’t necessarily need extra moisture. Much of that lies in the power of suggestion. The same way reading about lice will make your head itchy, we’re betting if you’ve made it this far into our story, you’ll have already reached for some ChapStick.
The more you use it, the more you’ll want it.
Our testers certainly found that to be true, and it’s another reason to guard against overuse. “In general, I like to let the body regulate itself whenever possible,” says Lio. Eating a balanced diet and staying well-hydrated keeps skin (including your lips) moisturized. Using a humidifier to combat dry indoor air, especially in winter, can help you break your dependency as well.
But overuse may also be a sign you’re allergic to your lip balm. If you’re in an endless loop of chapped lips and reapplication, consider switching to a balm with a completely different ingredient profile. If a certain ingredient is causing inflammation or irritation (which, we’ve discovered, can be pretty much anything) it may lead you to use your lip balm more, which causes more irritation, and voila: lip balm addiction.