What causes chapped lips?

Audrey Kunin, MD
Frequently chronic chapped lips can look identical to the everyday variety, but they never seem to get better regardless of how often you apply your lip balm.  While it is very helpful to have a dermatologist act as your medical sleuth, here are a number of possibilities you can consider:
  • Check for periodontal disease or abscesses. There are reports that deep cleansing of the mouth performed by the dentist (possibly under anesthesia) may help solve the problem.
  • Clarinet players may develop chapping at the contact area of the reed.
  • The ingredient propyl gallate in lipstick may be causing a contact allergy.
  • Your toothpaste may be to blame if it contains guaiazulene.
  • Check out the ingredient label on your toothpaste. If it contains sodium lauryl sulfate, this may be a concern as well. Blamed for chapped lips, skin irritation and even perioral dermatitis, avoidance of sodium lauryl sulfate can be helpful.
  • A little known (or seen) condition known as chelitis granulomatosa may require a biopsy for diagnosis.
  • Being allergic to nickel may surface on the lips too. Remember; don't put metallic items like paper clips in your mouth!
  • The juice from citrus fruits may cause both irritation as well as a sun sensitive allergy that looks like chapped lips.
  • Eating figs can result in a light allergy.
  • An ingredient known as phenyl salicylate (salol) used in lip care products may be your culprit.
  • You can develop an allergy to cobalt from taking vitamin B12 supplements. It may look like unexplained episodes of recurrent swelling and crusting of lips made worse by wind and sun exposure. And it is important to know that you may have a negative patch test to vitamin B12 despite the presence of the allergy.
  • The blood pressure medication propranolol may cause chapping as a side effect.
  • If you've got vertigo and chapped lips, check to see if you're on the medication prochlorperazine.
  • Down's syndrome patients have a genetic predilection to having chapped lips. Treatment with thyroid supplement and potent topical steroid ointments may clear the condition.
  • All those years in the sun may have caused precancerous changes known medically as actinic chelitis. Treatment with a topical chemotherapy medication known as 5-flourouracil may clear it up.
  • An allergy to red dyes used in candy, mouthwash, toothpaste, etc. may be to blame.

When I see babies with chapped lips, my first question is whether or not they use pacifiers or take a baby bottle to bed. These should be avoided -- the constant moisture and saliva around the mouth leads to chapping and skin rashes. The same goes for lip licking and chewing bubble gum -- habits I often see in school-age children. Another big cause of chapped lips in children is breathing through their mouths while sleeping because the nasal passages are blocked. All the air passing through the mouth acts like a fan to dry out the lips. It helps to treat the causes of nasal congestion, to moisturize the lips with a waxy lip protector every night at bedtime, and to use a room humidifier during the winter.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

In addition to cold weather, overexposure to the sun, repeated licking, dehydration or irritating cosmetic products can all lead to dry, chapped lips.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.