How not to crack a smile

Skin: Balm is essential in winter weather, to keep lips supple and avoid 'lip-licker's dermatitis

January 09, 2000|By Barbara Isaacs | Barbara Isaacs,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Pucker up, because Old Man Winter is coming in for a kiss. And it isn't pretty. If your lips are getting flaky, showing the painful ravages of the dry, cold weather, they're not alone. "Lips are a target for dryness," said Dr. Joseph Bark, a Lexington, Ky., dermatologist and author of "Your Skin: An Owner's Guide." "It's hard to keep them oiled, and they dry out and crack."

Summer's humidity, for all its discomfort, is the best balm for our lips while also keeping our skin and hair moist and glowing. But cool weather's drop in humidity dehydrates the skin of our lips, hands, elbows and feet.

Then, to cope with dried-out lips, most of us unconsciously lick our lips to wet them, robbing the skin of its natural protective oils. That can lead to what Bark calls "lip licker's dermatitis."

"People tend to lick their lips because they're dry, and that exacerbates the problem." said Dr. Margaret Terhune, a University of Kentucky dermatologist.

So each fall invariably fuels a frenzy for tubes, tubs and pots of lip balm.

In 1998, the lip-balm business raked in more than $223 million. The biggest-selling brand, ChapStick, sold 47.7 million tubes.

For those who spend hours outdoors, insulation for the lips is a necessity. "Mostly, it's the wind coming through," said Michael Gay, 31, a school crossing guard in Lexington, Ky. He spends two hours each day outside.

Along with an orange police vest, baton and whistle, Gay has another piece of standard equipment: a tube of Blistex.

For Marta Tuttle, 31, an ice-skating instructor, winter skin is a year-round problem. Five days a week, before and after school, her workplace is the frigid rink. When she digs in her purse, she automatically comes up with two lip balms: Carmex, and Cherry Ice by Mentholatum.

She's grateful she's not a lip licker, but many of her students are.

"I know a lot of the girls use stuff on their lips, more because they lick them," Tuttle said. "I've seen them complain about it."

Most people can get relief from peeling and cracking lips for less than $1, the going rate for many lip balms, such as ChapStick, Carmex and Vaseline.

"I think it really helps people," Dr. W. Patrick Davey, a Lexington dermatologist, said of lip balm.

Some of his patients with severely dry lips are willing to try just about anything.

"I've heard of people using Bag Balm, Norwegian Hand Formula, Vaseline and Aquaphor on their lips," he said.

Bark said anything that puts a barrier on the lips can be helpful, including lipsticks and lip glosses, as long as they aren't so tasty that you are tempted to lick them repeatedly.

"Lipstick is protective," Bark said. "In 23 years of practice, I've seen hundreds of cases of lip cancer in men, but only two in women. It's not only dryness, it's sunlight."

Many lipsticks now are formulated with sun protection. Lip balm or lipstick with a sun protection factor of at least 15 is recommended for people who are frequently outdoors, including snow skiers.

Skin experts say lipstick and lip balm users should be on the lookout for irritation resulting from lipstick or lip balm. Some people may have an allergy to ingredients in lip products.

"If it's an allergy, it feels more like burning than an itching sensation," Davey said.

Experts recommend petroleum jelly Vaseline as the safest lip balm. "Plain Vaseline, to my knowledge, no one is allergic to," Bark said.

Extremely dry, cracking lips that don't respond to balms may need to be evaluated by a dermatologist or family doctor.

Terhune touts the power of Vaseline as an all-purpose skin winterizer, not only for lips, but all skin.

"It's the cheapest and has the fewest additives, dyes or fragrances," she said, adding that most people need a heavier moisturizer in winter than they do in summer.

She often recommends moisturizers such as Eucerin or Cetaphil. Using bath oil won't help, because most of the oil runs down the drain.

One trick is to use lotion or oil just after bathing, or to use a heavy lotion or Vaseline, then put on thick, white cotton socks on the hands and feet.

One common winter problem is cracks in the heels. Terhune recommends frequent soaks in lukewarm water, then using a pumice stone to remove the thick skin.

The worst thing to do in winter is to bathe or shower more than once a day, Bark said. Skip the anti-bacterial soap, which is very drying, and use a milder soap such as Dove or Basis.

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