Licking your lips seems like the natural thing to do when they start to get dry and chapped. This can actually make dryness worse. Repeated lip licking can even lead to a chronic condition known as lip licker’s dermatitis.
The skin on the lips is thin and delicate. It needs extra care to avoid drying out, especially during the cold winter months. It may be tempting, but you should avoid licking your lips when they’re chapped.
Read on to find out how to stop licking your lips and some tips for preventing dryness in the first place.
Saliva contains digestive enzymes, like amylase and maltase, which wear down the skin on the lips. Over time, this will leave the lips more vulnerable to dry air. The skin can even break open and bleed.
When we lick our lips, saliva adds moisture to the surface of the lips, but only for a brief moment. As the saliva quickly evaporates, lips will likely end up drier than before.
Occasionally licking the lips may not cause any problems. However, persistent licking throughout the day could dry out the lips and lead to chapping, splitting, flaking, or peeling. This is especially true if you live in a cold, dry climate or you go out in the sun without using sunscreen.
You might feel the need to repeatedly lick your lips when you’re anxious or nervous. Harsh environmental conditions can also dry out the skin and lips and make us feel the need to moisten them.
The following conditions can make your lips dry out:
- sun exposure or sunburns
- outdoor cold, dry air, especially during winter months
- indoor dry heat
Certain underlying medical conditions can also cause dry skin on the lips and make you feel the need to lick them more:
- nasal congestion caused by a cold or the flu, which makes you breathe through your mouth
- autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, or Crohn’s disease
- nerve damage to the head or neck
- poorly fitting dentures
- smoking tobacco
There are also a few medications that can result in dry lips, including:
- medications containing high amounts of vitamin A or retinoids, such as certain acne medications
- anti-nausea medications
- diarrhea medications
- chemotherapy drugs
Lip licking can lead to a vicious cycle. You lick your lips to moisten them and they get chapped, so you feel like you need to lick them more, which makes them more chapped.
When you have chapped lips
Kicking a habit isn’t easy, but there are a few ways to stop the cycle of repeated licking:
- Apply a non-irritating lip balm several times a day, especially before bedtime.
- Keep lip balm in your purse, car, or attached to your keys so it’s always available.
- Drink lots of water to avoid having dry skin and lips. You can keep a reusable water bottle close by.
When it’s a nervous habit
If licking your lips is a nervous habit that tends to happen when you’re stressed, try one of these strategies for quitting:
- identifying and avoiding your stress triggers
- trying meditation or mindfulness exercises
- taking deep breaths when you’re feeling anxious
- chewing gum
- seeing a therapist or mental health specialist
- considering anti-anxiety medications
Lip dermatitis, or eczematous cheilitis, is a type of eczema, a skin condition that can cause severe flare-ups on your skin. The cause of eczema is often unknown, but it may be linked to an allergy or an irritant, like frequently licking your lips. Genetics may also play a role in developing lip dermatitis.
Common symptoms of lip dermatitis include:
- redness or a rash on or surrounding the lips
- dryness and flakiness of the skin around the lips
- splitting of the lips
The area most frequently affected is the place where the inner part of the mouth meets the skin.
To treat lip dermatitis, it’s important to stop licking your lips. Regular moisturizing and applying an emollient ointment or petroleum jelly often, throughout the day can help the area heal. You can find petroleum jelly in any drug store or online.
The National Eczema Association also recommends applying coconut or sunflower seed oil to relieve eczema symptoms. Virgin sunflower seed oil can help hydrate the skin and preserve the integrity of the skin’s natural barrier.
Here are a few best practices for how to keep lips moist and healthy:
- using a lip balm with sun protection (at least SPF 15) and an emollient, like petrolatum, or a plant-based wax or oil such as beeswax, cocoa butter, coconut oil, or shea butter
- avoiding lip balms with added flavoring, colors, or fragrances
- after you wake up, gently exfoliating the lips with a damp washcloth or a toothbrush, followed by applying a lip balm
- wearing a scarf or face mask to cover the lips if you’ll be outside during a cold winter day
- wearing a hat with a wide brim that shades your face when you’ll be out in the sun
- running a humidifier to increase humidity levels in your home
- drinking plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration
- treating congestion to make sure you’re breathing through your nose, not your mouth, at night while you sleep
- avoiding products that irritate your lips, such as a lip plumper or products with cooling agents, like menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus
- avoiding spicy, rough, very salty, or acidic foods that could irritate the lips, such as citrus fruits
- not picking at dry cracked lips
- when cleansing, rinsing your face and lips with cool, not hot, water
If your chapped lips don’t heal after trying self-care tips for two or three weeks, visit a dermatologist. Chapped or dry lips can be caused by an allergic reaction or could be a sign of an infection. Infections of the lips can be triggered by viruses, yeast, or bacteria.
Though rare, a serious condition called actinic cheilitis could make one or both of your lips dry and scaly. Symptoms include:
- dry, cracking lips
- red and swollen or white patch on the lower lip
- painless, scaly patches on the lip that feel like sandpaper (advanced actinic cheilitis)
If you notice a patch on your lip that resembles a burn or turns white, see a doctor. If left untreated, actinic cheilitis could lead to type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
Licking your lips when they’re already chapped will make the problem worse. As saliva evaporates, it draws moisture away from the lips, leaving them more vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions, like the dry winter air or the hot sun.
If you tend to get dry, chapped lips, apply lip balm often, but be sure to choose a lip balm devoid of any fragrance, flavor, or color. It’s also a good idea to drink more water and use a humidifier during the cold winter months.
The key to stopping constant lip licking is to keep your lips protected and moisturized so you don’t feel the need to moisten them.