For the last few months, I've been battling the craziest, most annoying case of dry, tight, painful, peeling lips. Bit of a problem when your job involves taking photos like this.
At first, I blamed it on an all-natural lip product I'd been testing.
But then I realized my lips were still a mess, even when I hadn't used it in weeks. In fact, I couldn't even pinpoint any one lip balm or lip colour as the source, since I'm constantly switching them up for the purposes of this blog. No matter what was in my rotation, I STILL had chapped lips.
So then I became convinced I had some kind of vitamin deficiency. Which would be weird, because I regularly track things in Cron-o-meter and usually hit or exceed every nutritional target.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I figured it out. I am allergic to... vitamin E! And possibly several other ingredients commonly found in lip balms.
As it turns out, many lip products contain allergens and irritants that end up perpetuating the very problems we're trying to treat: dryness, peeling, cracking and flaking. Insane, right?
If you, too, have suffered from chapped lips that don't ever seem to go away, one of these ingredients could be the culprit:
1. Vitamin E
Just about every lip balm label I've looked at contains some form of vitamin E. A thick, sticky oil, you'd figure it would be the perfect lip hydrator. But it's not for everyone.
This Dermatologic Surgery study found that 33 percent of patients developed contact dermatitis from applying topical vitamin E. The Contact Dermatitis Institute also lists vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherol) as one of the most prevalent allergens. They have an entire fact sheet on it, as well as this video:
Some of the ways vitamin E might appear on a lip balm's ingredient label include: natural vitamin E oil, tocopherol or tocopheryl acetate. It can be man-made or derived from plants, but contrary to popular opinion, both forms can be allergenic.
One reason it took me so long to figure out that vitamin E was the source of my chapped lips is because I was using an all-natural vitamin E oil every night as my lip moisturizer. It didn't even occur to me that it could be allergenic! It was only through a complete elimination, i.e. not putting any products on my mouth for a whole week, that I was able to identify the source.
Now, I know that my natural vitamin E oil is derived from soy, so it is possible that the soy is what I was really reacting to. But since tocopheryl acetate, the synthetic vitamin E, is considered even more allergenic on EWG's database, I think I'll just stay away from ALL types of vitamin E from now on. Unless it's quite far down on the ingredients list, it will probably irritate me.
2. Castor Oil
Castor oil is another thick, viscous liquid, and if you look, it's found in a heck of a lot of lip products. Derived from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, it is comprised of about 80 to 90 percent ricinoleic acid.
The problem with ricinoleic acid is that it can be an allergen—some even say, the main one behind chapped and inflamed lips. This Contact Dermatitis study found that ricinoleic acid was the most common contact allergen, accounting for 54 percent of contact chelitis.
None of this surprises me, considering my highly traumatic experience with castor oil and the Oil Cleansing Method. Not only is it extremely drying, but I suspect my terrible reaction started off as contact dermatitis, which left me vulnerable to infection... and finally, turned into full-fledged acne. I can't say for sure yet whether castor oil is a problem on my lips or just my face, but I will always look at it with deep suspicion!
It's less likely, but other oils in lip balms, such as coconut, olive and almond, can be allergens, too.
I don't mean to point fingers at specific brands here, but the one that comes to mind when you think of beeswax lip balm is obviously Burt's Bees. According to Dr. Cynthia Bailey, it's the product she sees the most problems with.
The issue is the propolis that gets mixed in with the beeswax. Propolis is a kind of "glue" that bees make from tree and plant resins to fill in the spaces in their hives. According to this Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences study, it seems to be one of the most frequent contact sensitizers, with possible reactions including chelitis and peeling lips.
I guess this is why I didn't got the hype over the original Burt's Bees lip balms! They never seemed to work for me, so probably I have some minor sensitivity. I'm allergic to honey, so I'm sure there is some link with bees and bee products in general. Too bad, so sad!
Lanolin is a waxy substance that is secreted by the oil glands of sheep, like this fella below. It is used in lip balms such as the cult favourite Lanolips because of its highly emollient properties and ability to prevent water loss.
For those who aren't sensitive, lanolin can be great. Dior creme Abricot, for example, contains lanolin and is my most favourite cuticle cream in the world. (I hear some people even use that on their lips!)
However, lips lack oil glands and could be more reactive to it. Dr. Sharon Jacob considers lanolin a "significant sensitizer," and on the "A-List" for top allergens. Here's her vid:
If you do a search for "Lanolips allergy," there appears to be quite a number of people who can't use lanolin.
5. Fragrances and Flavourings
It should come as no surprise that fragrances can be allergens. One would think perfumes would have no place in our lip balms, but often, they are used to mask unpleasant smells from other chemicals, or to add flavouring.
The Contact Dermatitis Institute has identified two fragrance mixes—list one and list two—that are problematic, including geraniol, citronellol and cinnamaldehyde. These can be derived from plant, animal and synthetic sources, so just because a lip balm is 100 percent natural does not mean it is free from potentially allergenic fragrances.
Peppermint oil is one of the worst offenders. This Dermatitis study tested sensitivity to propolis, lanolin, coconut oil, almond oil, peppermint oil and vitamin E. Out of all those things, the peppermint oil was shown to be the most likely culprit in the patients' acute contact dermatitis.
Other fragrance/flavour ingredients to watch out for include menthol, camphor, eucalyptus and limonene.
If you're especially diligent about always wearing SPF on your lips, that could be the cause of chronic chapping, at least if you're using products that protect with chemicals, not minerals. Studies such as this one in Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine have identified chemical sunscreens as a cause of allergic skin reactions.
Oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3), octinoxate, avobenzone, octisalate and octylcrylene are the hard-to-pronounce words to avoid on your labels.
Instead, choose lip balms with mineral sunblocks such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which shouldn't give you any issues.
What to Do If You Suspect an Allergen
If you are allergic to an ingredient, signs such as dryness, tightness, flaking and peeling should should appear within a few days of your lips making contact with it. However, it is ALSO possible to develop an allergy to an ingredient you've been exposed to many times before. (Yet another reason I couldn't figure out my vitamin E thing. I'd been using that oil for two years previously!)
The only real way to identify any allergen is by elimination. When chapping occurs, and it doesn't seem to respond to lip balm (nor have you been spending countless hours out in harsh weather), then you should stop using all lip products for at least a week or more, so that your lips can heal.
Next, re-introduce each ingredient back, one by one, noting whether it causes any reaction. I won't lie... this part IS challenging, since many if not most lip balms contain a mix of the above allergens.
Lip Balm Recommendations
Obviously, this is HIGHLY subjective, but some lip balms to consider include:
- Fresh Sugar Lip Treatment: It's by no means perfect, as it does contain many of the listed allergens. That said, it has never given me problems. Perhaps because it has so many other nourishing oils?
- L'Occitane 100 Percent Pure Shea Butter: The only thing in here is shea butter. That's it! I really like the matte texture it gives, which is great for wearing underneath lipsticks.
- Pixi Shea Butter Lip Balm: I wouldn't say it is super-moisturizing, but it gives a decent thin layer of moisture and doesn't chap me. It also comes in tinted versions, which are all excellent.
- RoC Enydrial Repairing Lip Care: Katrina swears by this one!
- S.W. Basics Vegan Lip Balm: This brand is specifically known for their minimalistic ingredients lists. The cocoa flavour would be the safest bet.
- Dr Roebuck's Lips: Definitely going to be my next purchase. The macadamia oil seems very promising!
- Chanel Hydra Beauty Nourishing Lip Care: This is the new version of the old Hydramax, which I loved. A splurge, but I'll be darned if Chanel doesn't make a very good lip balm.
You might be tempted to go for products heavy on the petrolatum, mineral oil or even pure Vaseline. Unfortunately, they can still be drying, because they lock other irritants deep into the skin, and simultaneously block out air and moisture. As explained here, I also have serious issues with petroleum derivatives in general: certain components can't be metabolized once they are absorbed into the body, and they are only so prevalent in the beauty industry because they are dirt cheap! Polyunsaturated (PUFA) oils aren't ideal either, for these reasons.
That said, I totally get that you might need to rely on a petroleum or PUFA balm, just to get short-term relief—I know I have!
If there's anyone else out there who might be as perplexed as I was over a chronic case of chapped lips, I hope this list helps you out. Like I said, I was really starting to think I had scurvy or something (hehe), since there are so many articles online about diet being the cause of unsightly chapping. Turns out, the problem was quite simple—it just took me a while to diagnose it as the darned vitamin E!
With this list of the most common allergens, you should be able to figure things out MUCH more quickly. Tell me:
Do you get chronic chapped lips?
Could you be allergic to one of these ingredients?
What are your favourite lip balms?