It’s so uncomfortable — I can hardly stand it anymore. How could I leave it behind? I knew I would need it, and I still left it when I scooped up the pile on my desk and rushed to the meeting. It’s been two hours of torture, and my lips are raw and peeling.
The last poor soul who tried to leave the meeting for more than two minutes found out the hard way that our boss has no qualms about embarrassing you in front of a room full of people. Everyone is shifting in their chairs and staring longing at their empty coffee cups and water pitchers.
By now, my lips must be bright red and bleeding. I’ve been licking them, which I know makes it worse, but they are starving for moisture. I can’t even focus on what is going on at the whiteboard because my mouth is demanding all my attention.
My lips want Vicks VapoRub, and like an idiot, I left it back on my desk. In my mind, I can see the familiar blue jar with the green label. I know if I opened it, the aroma of menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus will fill my nose with joy and my mind with visions of an icy, wind-swept plain. I know when I dip my finger in the balm and run it across my parched lips, they will burn with cold fire, and I will be whole again.
The boss wanted to know why I was smiling when I walked back into the meeting room with glistening lips after being gone for 5 minutes. He wasn’t pleased, and his face showed it — but I am satisfied. It was worth the few minutes of posturing and browbeating I had to endure.
It is always worth it.
The History of My Lips
My lips have always been bigger than average for a person of Scandinavian descent. They have also been dry since the day I was born. I picked up the terrible habit of licking them often, and they get cracked and chapped.
The first balm I tried was Chapstick. I preferred the original flavor at first because I liked the smell of the moisturizing oils. It worked quite well, and I used it often — so much that my parents complained I used it all much of the time.
The lip-licking continued, and in my teens, I discovered Carmex. I loved the feeling after I applied it — and became enamored by the burning sensation on my lips. I used and abused Carmex for over 20 years, until one day, someone told me that the company puts chemicals and fiberglass in the mix to dry out your lips and keep you applying it over and over. Even back in the mid-2000s, I could easily find information on Yahoo about this conspiracy and more. It was a lie, but you know what they say about suckers being born.
I tried going without balm for a while, but couldn’t stand the pain in my mouth. Then one day, after coming in from the freezing rain, peeling the last of the skin from my bottom lip, my mom handed me a jar of Vicks VapoRub and told me to use it.
I never looked back.
I’ve used Vicks since that day, going through jar after jar. It is my constant companion. Everywhere I go, my jar of Vicks is there too — in my bag, on my desk, in my pocket, in the car. If I leave without it, I would literally have a panic attack until I had my hands on another jar. The panic attacks have continued over the years, so I always make sure I have a container handy.
Vicks is always there for me, and it never doubts my love and affection. I guess you could say I’m an addict.
Are Lip Balms Addictive?
From my experience, and the experience of the wonderful people over at Lip Balm Anonymous, you would think they are addictive — with phrases like “…trying to quit for good,” “…feel like I’m stuck in this cycle,” and “…can’t do without” thrown around every day. For many of us, it feels like addiction because it’s a constant presence in our lives, and if we try to quit, the withdrawals are terrible — in the form of cracked, bleeding lips.
When something affects people this much, they start looking for answers, and many times, latch on to ideas that turn out to be conspiracy theories. I thought Carmex had chemicals and fiberglass in it — designed to make me want to use more and more. Anybody can fall for these half-truths because deep-down, we want to have someone to blame.
But the truth is that balms do not contain any substance designed to dry out lips unless you are mistakenly using a product that contains humectants, which draw out moisture. There are no physically addictive ingredients in the balms — not like the nicotine in cigarettes.
But, as an aside, if you are using a heavy, occlusive ointment like Vicks VapoRub, it can interfere with the natural moisture in the lips.
The result is that you keep applying it over and over and the natural balance in the skin of your lips is disturbed.
Menthol, peppermint oil, and beeswax are other substances that are problematic because they can irritate sensitive skin. But, to be honest, Vicks VapoRub was never intended to be used on the lips, so Proctor & Gamble are not to blame for its misuse.
As much as we would love to believe the strange stories, there is no proof that these cosmetic companies are adding chemicals to lip balms that make you addicted to their product. Again, there is nothing physically addictive contained within.
But, what about something that is far less problematic than substance abuse but still an issue for many? What about behavioral addiction — which is habits, activities, and rituals that deliver pleasure and can become obsessive? This addiction would fall in the same category as pornography, shopping, gambling, or social media.
Putting on lip balm obsessively would qualify as behavioral, and speaking from my own experience, lip balm use much of the time is unnecessary — I just love the rush I get and the feeling of the menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus on my lips.
For many, the act of putting on balm releases dopamine and gives a rush of pleasure that can become addictive.
What Makes Your Lips Dry and Cracked?
There are many reasons your lips are dry and cracked that has nothing to do with putting a heavy, occlusive ointment on your lips constantly.
Many of us lick our lips. Mine is from anxiety, and dry mouth caused by prescription medication. There are many other reasons people lick them obsessively, but this is the main reason lips become so dry.
R. Todd Plott, MD says there is another reason your lips are dry and irritated and is something you wouldn’t guess. The culprit is your toothpaste. Irritation is caused by whiteners and strong flavors, and the best thing you could do for yourself is to use a milder toothpaste. You can’t stop brushing, can you?
The last thing worth mentioning is your love of spicy foods. You may like it, but your lips don’t. I tend to eat spicy a few times a day, and what I try to do is wash my face with cool water after to get rid of the spice. Warm or hot water will only dry out your lips.
What if We Need a Moisturizer?
After reading the studies and listening to the doctors, I have convinced myself that slathering Vicks all over my mouth is not helping. I need to do something else to moisturize in addition to changing my toothpaste, cutting back on spicy foods, and figuring out a way to stop licking my lips so much.
There are a ton of good lip ointments on the market, and it would be difficult to suggest one. Rachel Nazarian, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology (FAAD) suggests searching for an ointment that contains nourishing ingredients like lanolin or beeswax without perfumes or dyes. She also likes the old standby, Vaseline.
Balm or ointments with vitamin E and green tea are excellent, as are products containing squalene and aloe vera.
Something as simple as running a humidifier in your room at night can help as well.
Instead of running out and buying the thing you saw in an ad on Facebook to cure your dry lips — shop around — and do a little research into what will go on your sensitive lips. Try not to fall in a rabbit hole of ideas and conspiracy theories. Trust science and find the truth about what is real and what is imagined.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of addiction to anything, even if it’s only behaviourally. Whatever you choose for your dry lips, use in moderation.
It’s all too easy to go off the deep end.