The Chapstick Conspiracy

Have you ever noticed that after using chapstick (which is what I call ALL lip balms, not just the ChapStick ® brand), your lips seem to crave more chapstick?  Are you one of those people that can’t leave home without your chapstick?  Do you often wonder if using chapstick makes your lips more chapped, creating the need for more chapstick?

Are they all in on it?

So many chapstick choices! / Photo by

The Science

Chapped lips are the term to describe dryness, cracking, bleeding and peeling skin of the lips.  The medical term for chapped lips is “cheilitis simplex” or “common cheilitis.”  It is originally caused by dry, cold, windy, or hot weather.  It can also be the result of dehydration or excessive lip licking.

A variation of cheilitis is called “angular cheilitis” which is the cracking in the corner of the lips.  Chapped lips can also be side effects of some drugs, or signs of something more serious: allergies, fungal or bacterial infection, cancer or pre-cancer[1], Crohn’s disease, or Sjogren’s syndrome [2].

The Addiction

Is chapstick your ball and chain? / Photo by

Is chapstick your ball and chain? / Photo by

I remember the last time I used chapstick.  It was late December 2015 and my lips were chapped after spending all day attempting to snowboard (and spending most of my time face down in the snow, wallowing in self pity after many repeated crashes).  The snow, wind, dry air and high altitude took its toll on my lips, so I broke down and used some random chapstick I had in my bag from who knows when.  My lips recovered fast and were so soft.  After a few weeks of being chained to my chapstick, I was tired of needing it every couple of hours.  I felt addicted.  I quit cold turkey.  I spent days with peeling lips so chapped they bled.  After a week or so though, my lips were back to normal and I didn’t need chapstick any longer.  I made a vow never to use chapstick again.

Although there is no chemical dependency to chapstick, many people can suffer from a chapstick habit–something like the habit of biting fingernails.  However, when people refer to their chapstick addiction, I doubt they are referring to the habit of putting on chapstick.  I think they are referring to their dependence on chapstick–dry and peeling lips, bleeding cracks, the inability to speak, chew or even think because their lips hurt so badly.  

I am not the only one to realize how addicting chapstick is.  There is a whole website devoted to chapstick junkies–Lip Balm Anonymous.  Although the website is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it just goes to show that this is a trending issue.

An unusual reason that some people feel addicted is that they have become accustomed to extra soft lips.  While this may sound hokey, anecdotally it isn’t.  Because of researching for this post, I have been extra conscious of my lips.  Even though they weren’t bothering me before, now I have noticed that my lips are dry and not silky smooth.  I think I have been paying more attention to the texture of my lips when normally that information is in the background.  My lips aren’t silky smooth, but they also aren’t chapped–they are just regular.

Conspiracy Theories

Tin foil hats FTW

Is there an actual chapstick conspiracy? / Photo by

Some addicted chapstick users have wondered if there is a conspiracy within the lip balm industry to create more demand for chapstick.  There are a couple variations of an old urban legend about Carmex ® or sometimes ChapStick ® and even just lip balms in general.  The belief is that fiber glass, ground glass, or a similar irritant is put in the chapstick which creates more irritation on the lips, thus promoting more use and future purchases.  However, if the companies were secretly adding glass to their lip balms, the products would likely be pulled from the shelves for not complying with the Food and Drug Administration.  

Is eos part of the chapstick conspiracy?

Is eos part of the chapstick conspiracy? / Photo by

Interestingly, there were 5 class action lawsuits filed against the popular dome shaped lip balm named “evolution of smooth” or “eos” colloquially [3].  It seems as though some people had adverse reactions to the balm–their lips feeling like sandpaper hours after use, in addition to cracking and bleeding lips.  Is eos part of the chapstick conspiracy?  An eos statement [4] dated October 6, 2016 gives little information.

We are pleased that the lawsuit brought against eos has been resolved. Our products are safe – and this settlement confirms that. Our lip balms are hypoallergenic, dermatologist tested, made with the highest quality ingredients, meet or exceed all safety and quality standards set by our industry and are validated by rigorous safety testing conducted by independent labs. We love our customers and their enjoyment of our products is our top priority. Thank you for your continued support.

While there is little merit to an actual chapstick conspiracy theory, there are some ingredients that will feel better on your lips than others.  

Ingredients to Avoid

Try to not use a chapstick containing drying ingredients: salicylic acid, phenol, camphor, or menthol. / Photo by

Try to not use a chapstick containing drying ingredients: salicylic acid, phenol, camphor, or menthol. / Photo by

Salicylic acid is sometimes an ingredient in lip balms.  Salicylic acid is used in conjunction with an “emollient.”  An emollient is a soothing substance.  The salicylic acid sloughs the top layer of skin and the emollient seals in moisture in the skin layers beneath.  However,  higher concentrations of salicylic acid, or salicylic acid not used with an emollient, may cause excessive dry skin [5].  

You may remember Menthol and Camphor from reading the post “The Magic Behind Tiger Balm.”  They are both irritants, especially to the sensitive skin on the lips.  The lip balm will feel smooth and tingly after application, but may eventually aggravate the sensitive skin on your lips.

Phenol is used to kill bacterial growth, but is a drying ingredient [6].  For regular, everyday chapped lips, this ingredient does more harm than good.

Fragrance, Peppermint, and Cinnamon could also be irritating to sensitive lip skin.

Vitamin E, Aloe, Lanolin, Benzocaine, and Beeswax:  don’t necessarily count these against the lip balm.  Sometimes, these ingredients can sometimes be allergens, but not to everyone.  

A good rule of thumb–if your lips sting or tingle after application of a lip balm, that lip balm is probably not for you.  

What you need

A product labeled "lip protectant."

A product labeled “lip protectant.”

Instead of reading ingredient labels, an easy shortcut would be to look for a lip balm labeled as a “lip protectant.”  To be classified as a lip protectant, the product can only contain the following ingredients [7]: allantoin, aluminum hydroxide gel, calamine, cocoa butter, cod liver oil, colloidal oatmeal, dimethicone, glycerin, hard fat, kaolin, lanolin, mineral oil, petrolatum, sodium bicarbonate, topical starch, white petrolatum, zinc acetate, zinc carbonate and zinc oxide [8].  Note that none of these ingredients made it on the “avoid” list.  

To prevent chapped lips in the first place, drink more water to keep your skin hydrated.  Avoid licking your lips and breathing in and out of your mouth.  If you are going to be in a cold and windy environment, try to keep your lips covered with a scarf or a facemask (affiliate) (this neoprene one is my favorite winter accessory!) or something similar. But sometimes chapped lips just can’t be beat and you need to use an external product.

A Safe Bet

A safe bet--petroleum jelly / Photo by

A safe bet–petroleum jelly / Photo by

A very basic solution would be just regular old petroleum jelly, which works by creating a protective barrier between your lips and the elements.  Vaseline is likely the most recognizable brand of petroleum jelly.  Applying it at night before going to sleep will help prevent it from getting worn off from eating or licking your lips.  


While I didn’t intentionally seek out information on lip cancer and sunscreen, it seems worth mentioning.  Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the USA [9].  Lip cancer is typically caught early because it is easily noticed.  Using lip sunscreen is super important, but the majority of the sunscreen users forget their lips (I was one of those until researching this post!).  In a study of 299 beachgoers, only 37% that had put on sunscreen also put on lip protection [9].  Make sure your lip balm has sunscreen in it.  Take care of your lips just as much as your skin when you go outside!

My Conclusions

Although there is little truth behind The Chapstick Conspiracy, it is worth checking the ingredient list of your lip balms, or just trying Vaseline (affiliate).  And be extra sure to use sunscreen on your lips!

Be smart about chapstick for your lips

Be smart about chapstick for your lips / Image available under CC0


[1]     Why Are My Lips Chapped?WebMD Healthy Beauty. WebMD LLC, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

[2]     Dermatologists Give More Than Lip Service To Common And Uncommon Lip And Mouth Problems.” Newswise. Newswise, 18 Oct. 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

[3]     Bucher, Anne. “EOS Settles Class Action Lawsuit Over Lip Balm ‘Blistering’ Claims.” Top Class Actions. Top Class Actions LLC, 01 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

[4]     eos Lawsuit Facts.” evolution of smooth. eos, 6 Oct. 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

[5]     Salicylic Acid Topical: Keratolytic Emollients-Topical.” WebMD Drugs & Medications. WebMD, LLC, 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

[6]     Stein, Anne. “Lip Balm: 6 Ingredients to Look For, 6 Ingredients to Avoid.”Swedish Covenant Hospital Health and Wellness Articles. Swedish Covenant Hospital, 08 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

[7]     CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 Section 347.50 Labeling of Skin Protectant Products.” CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. US Food and Drug Administration, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

[8]     CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 Section 347.10 Skin Protectant Active Ingredients.” CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. US Food and Drug Administration, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

[9]     Stebbins, William, MD, and C. William Hanke, MD, MPH. “Lip Cancer: Not Uncommon, Often Overlooked.” Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Cancer Foundation, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.


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