Anyone who’s reached for their chapstick in their pocket only to find it empty knows that chapped lips can be quite the annoyance (and lip balm addiction is real!). Dry, peeling lips aren’t fun, but there’s plenty you can do about them—that is, if you get to the root of the cause. And surprisingly, there are a lot of possible causes.
Super dehydrated lips can be the result of mundane factors like lip licking or eating salty foods to more concerning health conditions like sunburn, allergic reactions or skin cancer. And sometimes peeling is just a side effect of the physiological makeup of your lips, according to Doris Day, MD, FAAD, and Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD (more on that below!).
The bottom line is that peeling lips can be triggered by a plethora of things, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference between run-of-the-mill dryness and something more serious. Here, Dr. Day and Dr. Friedman break down which causes you should get checked out—and which ones you can remedy with a little lip balm and H2O.
Why are my lips peeling so much?
Chances are you have nothing to worry about. Lips are naturally dry. “Your lips don’t have oil glands,” Dr. Day says. So, it can be very difficult for your lips to retain moisture (that’s why they don’t ever get pimples, btw!). The absence of oil glands also means that your lips do not produce natural moisturizing factors, or elements that keep your skin’s outer layer protected and hydrated.
In fact, your lips don’t have much of an outer layer at all. Dr. Friedman points out that, unlike the rest of our skin, many areas of the lips do not have a stratum corneum (a.k.a. the top layer of skin). “This is kind of like our armor,” he says. “It’s an intricately woven barrier comprised of fats, proteins and dead skin cells.” This barrier is used to help protect the skin when it’s dry, and is also responsible for some of your body’s built-in UV protection. “It has an SPF of roughly five,” Dr. Friedman says. (Who knew?)
So before you convince yourself that you have a serious medical condition, keep in mind that your lips are naturally more sensitive than the rest of your skin, and any dryness or peeling can likely be combatted with a few swipes of your favorite lip balm.
That being said, there are some other factors that could be causing your peeling lips, from diet to a more serious health condition. Let’s talk through each one.
1. Your diet consists of a lot of salty or spicy foods.
Big fan of snacks like pretzels or chips? They could be the reason for your peeling lips. Salty foods, particularly those that have a lot of salt on the outside that can end up on the lips, can definitely effect the skin there, Dr. Day says. “Salt holds water, so it can absorb the water away from the lips and just dry them out,” she explains. Another food trigger? Spicy snacks. They can also cause skin irritation and water loss, Dr. Day adds.
Treat it: Lay off some of the salty foods for a while and let your lips heal by using a paraffin-wax based lip balm.
2. You’ve been licking your lips a bunch.
This is probably the worst thing you can do for dry lips, Dr. Friedman says. “Saliva is comprised of enzymes that are meant to break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, which are what your lips are made of,” he says. “You are literally digesting your lips when you do that,” Dr. Friedman says.
Treat it: Cool it with the lip licking. Keep a lip moisturizer with you (in your pocket, gym bag, etc.) so that when you have the urge to lick, you swipe instead.
3. You fried your lips in the sun.
Remember: Your lips are already missing that top later of skin with built-in UV protection. So if you’re out in the sun without an SPF lip balm on, chances are the skin on your lips will peel. “Sun cooks the water out of your skin and that can leave it drier in areas that are already naturally on the drier side,” Dr. Day says. Plus, the inflammation from a sunburn can leave your lips peeling as skin cells turn over and try to replenish.
Treat it: You can rely on some of your typical sunburn remedies for chapped lips as well (think: aloe and anti-inflammatory meds like Advil or Motrin).
4. Your medication is drying out your lips.
Certain medications can easily cause dry, peeling lips. Dr. Friedman says this is a common complaint for many of his clients using acne meds. “I tell my patients who are on Accutane that that’s the number one side effect—dry, cracked lips,” he says. “I tell them that they should be using a lip balm so often that their friends should be asking them, ‘what the heck is in that stuff that you’re using it so much?'” he says.
Treat it: First, talk to your doc about whether the meds your taking could cause dry lips. If that’s the case, and you can’t stop taking your medication any time soon, make sure to follow Dr. Friedman’s advice to apply a moisturizing lip balm to combat the side effects. If the peeling gets more severe, a trip to your MD might be worth it to make sure you’re not allergic to one of the ingredients.
5. You’re experiencing yeast overgrowth.
Do you have an underbite? Or maybe you drool in your sleep? These factors can cause yeast overgrowth (and in turn, a yeast infection in the mouth area). This type of infection can lead to dry, flaky skin around the mouth, and sometimes even fissuring (when you get small cracks in the corners of the mouth), Dr. Day says.
Treat it: Like yeast infections anywhere else, a prescribed anti-fungal medication is your best bet. Talk to a derm.
6. You have actinic cheilitis.
With this condition, “the skin has been damaged from chronic sun exposure so much so that it can’t repair itself,” Dr. Friedman says. Actinic cheilitis is more common among older individuals.
It’s this sort of long-term sun damage and inflammation on the lips that can lead to skin cancer. “In this kind of dry, cracked area, it’s very easy for skin cancers to emerge, and so we do see a lot of squamous cell carcinomas in older individuals on the lower lip because of that,” Dr. Friedman says. Actinic cheilitis is characterized by dryness and scaly patches or plaques, typically on the lower lip, as mentioned.
Treat it: Treating actinic cheilitis involves what’s called topical field therapy or photodynamic light therapy to either produce an immune response or kill off damaged skin cells. But first, your doctor will diagnose you via a skin biopsy.
7. You have a vitamin deficiency.
“Various vitamin B deficiencies can result in dry, cracked, angry, red lips,” Dr. Friedman says, and these are usually accompanied by a similar looking rash around the mouth.
Treat it: Through a blood test, your doctor will be able to determine what your exact vitamin deficiency is and prescribe necessary supplements (or suggest dietary adjustments) if you require them.
8. You’re having an allergic reaction or irritant contact dermatitis.
An allergic reaction will cause not only peeling, but also a diffused redness and swelling around the lips, Dr. Day says. An allergic reaction is usually also itchy, rather than scaly. This could be caused by ingredients in your makeup, skincare, or even your toothpaste. “Cinnamic acid or cinnamon derivatives are a common allergen in toothpaste that people can get irritated lips from,” Dr. Friedman says.
Irritant contact dermatitis, on the other hand, is caused by friction on the lips, brought on by mental mouth implants like retainers. “Metal implants or various composites of dental implants can be a chronic source of lip peeling,” Dr. Friedman says.
Treat it: A topical steroid or oral medication will usually do the trick for either issue.
9. You have lichen planus.
Lichen planus is an inflammatory skin condition. It usually shows itself in the form of itchy, purple bumps on the body. “But it can also appear on the lips,” Dr. Friedman says. And when it does, it usually shows up as purple or brownish cracked areas on the lips.
Treat it: A prescribed anti-inflammatory or topical steroid will help.
10. You have paraneoplastic pemphigus.
This is a *very* rare condition, but covering all the bases here! Paraneoplastic pemphigus is an “autoimmune blistering disease associated with underlying cancer,” Dr. Friedman says. While it can appear in the form of a skin rash, the hallmark of this condition is erosive oral disease, he says—so obviously talk to your doc if you think your lips are showing signs of something more serious and blistering. With this particular condition, your lips will typically crack open and bleed, causing sores, redness and swelling around the mouth.
Treat it: If you are diagnosed, your doctor will likely prescribe steroids and topical antibiotic ointment for the actual skin lesions and blisters and guide you through any other treatment necessary to address the underlying cancer if you do have a malignancy.
Whew. That’s a lot! Anything I can do to fight my chapped lips in the meantime?
Absolutely! The key to fighting peeling lips related to a low-key issue (e.g., a mild sunburn) is restoring the barrier and retaining water. For a quick fix, Dr. Friedman recommends dampening your lips with water (not your saliva!) and then using something thick to coat them. He suggests products with paraffin wax. “I personally like the little tins that have paraffin wax, because it allows you to scoop out even more and really just go to town with this,” he says.
Another good quick applicator? Lip balm with sunscreen and (sorry) no flavoring. “You want to avoid any chance of interacting with potential irritants or allergens,” Dr. Friedman says.
How often should I be applying lip balm?
During the day, Dr. Friedman says apply as needed—whenever you feel the urge to lick or peel your lips. At night, he recommends applying a thick lip moisturizer before bed. This is especially important for mouth breathers or people who sleep with their mouth open. “The passage of the air will dry the lips out. And we also lose a lot of moisture when we sleep,” Dr. Friedman says. A few coats before bed can go along way. These derms also recommend sleeping with a humidifier next to the bed to introduce more moisture into the air while asleep.
Should I be using lip scrubs?
“There seems to be this fad right now of exfoliating the lips and brushing the lips,” Dr. Day says. But there’s no reason to do this, according to the expert. “That’s just going to dry them out,” Days says. You don’t have pores on your lips, so you don’t need to exfoliate your lips, she says. Doing a few swipes of a lip moisturizer on the other hand can be very beneficial.