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That persistent pucker problem

There is a lip balm in your pocket -- go on, you can admit it

Health & Fitness

January 18, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

"People are known to have become dependent on lip balms," adds Jerome Litt, a Cleveland dermatologist and author of several skin care books. "There are many lip-lickers, which itself is a habit," Litt says. "So in order to try to remedy this habit, they believe that applying a lip balm will help them."

The chronic use of lip balm isn't deleterious, according to Margaret Weiss, a dermatologist in practice with her husband, Robert, at the Maryland Laser, Skin and Vein Institute in Hunt Valley. For some of her clients, "using ChapStick or lip balm is like a nervous habit. It's certainly better than smoking or biting your cuticles or biting your fingernails. It's not a harmful stress reliever."

For those who question the wisdom of applying petroleum products to lips, Weiss says, "There is no scientific evidence of any kind that petroleum-based [products] have any kind of bad health effects at all."

The lip balm habit often starts early in life. "When you're a little girl you want to emulate your mom putting on makeup and lipstick," says Nicole Burns, an aesthetician at D.K. Salon & Co. in North Baltimore. "The first step is ChapStick, which is clear. Then you get to be a little older. At 8 or 9, I went to the Bonne Bells." She is referring to that adolescent lip balm favorite, the Bonne Bell Lip Smacker.

Today, it's DDF glossy lip therapy, SPF 15. Burns has containers in her car and purse and at home and work.

"If I was deserted on an island, it's the one thing I would have to have," she says.

How often does she reach for her lip balm? "Oh gosh, probably every half-hour, because it comes off when you drink and eat, and your lips get dry."

When and how to put on the balm

Frequent use of lip balm is generally a benign practice, most dermatologists say.

"I don't think medical intervention is necessary," says dermatologist Jerome Litt. Still, it's important to pay attention to possible side effects.

* When to use lip balm:

Consider the use of lip balm "only when your lips are excessively dry or if they peel," Litt says. "This can be a result of gum-chewing or certain foods such as spices."

* Possible side effects:

"If you are using a balm that causes burning or itching or pain, it probably means that you are allergic or sensitive to one of the active ingredients such as menthol, camphor or phenol -- or two or all of them," Litt says. "This is either a contact sensitivity or an irritation response."

A medicated lip balm that dries the lips can cause cracks or fissures "that get secondarily infected," Baltimore dermatologist Monte S. Meltzer says.

Frequent licking of dry lips can also cause cheilitis, or "inflammation of the lips," Meltzer says. "Thinning agents" found in lip balm can also lead to chapped skin around the mouth, and contact dermatitis.

Flavors and fragrances in certain lip balms may present a "greater risk of allergic reaction," Hunt Valley dermatologist Margaret Weiss says.

* What to use?

"For dry lips, particularly in the winter, when the humidity is very low, I recommend plain petroleum," Litt says. "In the summertime, I always recommend a lip balm with a sunscreen."

Keep in mind, Litt adds, that some medicated lip balms "have been used for cold sores [herpes simplex infections]. These usually have salicylic acid in them, which is very drying and can be irritating."

When using a lip balm that contains petroleum, which contains no water, be sure your lips are hydrated to seal in moisture, Weiss advises. She also cautions that those over age 40 with chronically chapped lips that don't respond to lip balm should see a dermatologist. Such persistent symptoms "can be a sign of pre-cancer skin changes."

* Is it possible to wean yourself from lip balm?

"It takes determination and a willingness to avoid the habit, much like any other habit," Litt says. "In most of the cases it's the lip-licking that is the culprit."

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