Nothing is worse than dry, cracked lips in the wintertime. Layering on the lip balm may seem like a practical solution— until it becomes hard to stop after just one layer. But do our lips actually get addicted to it? Well, sort-of. While chapstick doesn’t trigger a chemical addiction (like the nicotine in cigarettes), it can become a psychological habit that may feel a lot like addiction.

Bingeing on Balm – The Need-to-Know

Here’s how it works. The bottom layers of skin on the lips naturally produce new skin cells, and each layer dies and dries out before reaching the top layer. Applying lip balm to dry skin may feel better in the moment, but it also interferes with the signaling mechanism that tells the lower cells to start producing more cells. As a result, when the balm wears off, the skin doesn’t have time to replenish the cells, and more lip balm is needed to keep skin moist (and more, and more… get the idea?). Making matters worse, some balms contain irritating chemicals, actually drying lips more, making lip products feel like a necessity. For example, menthol is used in many popular lip balms for its ability to produce a cooling sensation, but studies have shown that it may irritate the skin, too.Effect of topically applied menthol on thermal, pain and itch sensations and biophysical properties of the skin. Yosipovitch, G., Szolar, C., Hui, XY., et al. Department of Dermatology UCSF Medical Center 94143-0989, USA. Archives of Dermatological Research, 1996 May;288(5-6):245-8.

Luscious Lips – Your Action Plan

The lips are mucous membranes with a very thin surface layer of skin, which dries out very easily. The number one rule to prevent dry lips: Avoid licking them! Saliva evaporates quickly and can leave lips drier than before. Also beware of excessive sun exposure and time spent in dry, winter air— both can result in extreme chapping and cause cracks and splits to develop. Drink lots of water and be sure to pick a lip balm with a SPF of 15 or higher to help protect against damaging ultraviolet rays, regardless of the weather (yep, it’s still possible to get a sunburn in the winter)Compliance with sunscreen advice in a survey of adults engaged in outdoor winter recreation at high-elevation ski areas. Buller, D.B., Andersen, P.A., Walkosz, B.J., et al. Klein Buendel Inc, Golden, Colorado. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2012 Jan;66(1):63-70.. Choose to use? Opt for a plain balm with a petrolatum, beeswax, or oil-based lubricating cream, and avoid lip products that contain chemicals such as menthol, camphor, or phenol (they may irritate skin more!). One final piece of advice: Be sure to apply balm only when lips are chapped— normal lips don’t necessarily need extra moisture! One study found that when moisturizers were used on normal (a.k.a. not dry) skin, it increased skin susceptibility to irritantsEffect of moisturizers on skin susceptibility to irritants. Held, E., Agner, T. Department of Dermatology, University of Copenhagen, Gentofte Hospital, Gentofte, Denmark. Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 2001 May;81(2):104-7.Effect of long-term use of moisturizer on skin hydration, barrier function and susceptibility to irritants. Held, E. Sveinsdottir, S., Agner, T. Department of Dermatology, Gentofte Hospital, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 1999 Jan;79(1):49-51.. If lips aren’t normally chapped, it may be better not to start applying lip balm at all— as the saying goes (or did we just make this up?), lip balm use can lead to abuse!

The Takeaway

Nope, not chemically addictive. But, some brands may have ingredients that can be habit forming, leading to feelings.