If you're a regular user of ChapStick (or another brand of lip balm), you may have heard the rumor that it's addictive.
"There are a lot of people that you see use ChapStick over and over and over again," says Fayne Frey, a New York dermatologist and founder of FryFace.com. "So perhaps it's not that surprising that I regularly get asked by patients whether it's addictive." Some groups, such as Lip Balm Anonymous, go so far as to claim that companies intentionally put addictive ingredients into their products to ensure people keep buying them.
The short answer? There's no good evidence that lip balm is chemically addictive — in that it causes withdrawal symptoms if you stop. And there's no evidence that it dries out your lips, forcing you to use more over time.
But there is reason to believe that it can be habit-forming for a smaller subset of people. That's because a few of the specific ingredients in many balms can cause a subtle allergic reaction that can cause your lips to feel irritated, leading people to use it over and over.
Here's an explanation of how ChapStick works, how addiction can happen — and how to figure out if it's happening to you.
What are chapped lips, anyway?
To understand chapping, you first need to understand skin.
Your entire body — including your lips — contains an uppermost layer of skin cells (called the stratum corneum) that acts as a barrier, stopping moisture from passing from the environment into you. Effectively, it makes you waterproof. "It's why you can go swimming for an hour, and the pool water doesn't go into you," Frey says.
Under ideal conditions, this layer functions well because of a network of lipids that hold the skin cells together and prevent water from passing through.
But conditions aren't always ideal. During winter, when the air is generally drier, this lipid network becomes less effective at preventing moisture loss. And your lips are especially prone to drying out for two reasons: the skin on them is much thinner than the skin that covers other parts of your body, and it contains fewer of the oil glands that produce the protective lipids.
Why do chapped lips also involve big chunks of dead, white skin? Your skin is constantly replenishing itself — with new cells being created, gradually moving outward to the surface, dying, and being sloughed off — and in order for them to be sloughed off, enzymes need to cut apart the structures holding them together.
"When there's a lot of moisture, these enzymes work nicely, and your skin sloughs off in small pieces," Frey says. "But when moisture levels get really low, those enzymes don't work as well, and the skin hangs on in bigger chunks."
Shari Lipner, an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, says that due to both of these factors, "lips are definitely more prone to drying out in the winter, and it can be very uncomfortable."
So is lip balm addictive?
ChapStick and other brands of lip balm work by adding a layer of wax over your skin, preventing moisture loss. Apart from wax, many of these balms contain numbing agents like camphor and menthol, which cause the nice tingling feeling you get when you put the balm on your lips.
These ingredients are what people most often point to as the reason why lip balm might be addictive. Some point to an Indian study that showed consistent topical application of camphor-based rubs, like Vicks VapoRub, led to withdrawal symptoms in some people.
But apart from this single non-peer reviewed study, there's just no evidence that menthol or camphor are chemically addictive. "It's simply not true," Lipner says. "The belief is definitely out there, but it's just not accurate." There's also no mechanism whereby using a lip balm would accelerate the drying-out of lips afterward.
Of course, there's an important point to be made: even though only some substances are chemically addictive (that is, they lead to withdrawal symptoms when a person stops using them), pretty much anything can be psychologically addicting. Millions of people, after all, are genuinely addicted to gambling, which isn't a drug at all.
But more than that, there's reason to believe that menthol and camphor might make lip balm habit-forming in a slightly different way.
Why some types of lip balm might be habit-forming for some people
For a minority of people — Frey guesses it's maybe 10 to 15 percent, but there's no real data — menthol, camphor, and other numbing ingredients in lip balms can cause what's called contact dermatitis: irritation and itchiness that result from contact with the ingredient. Essentially, it's a subtle allergic reaction.
The thing is, most people who respond to these ingredients this way don't actually know it, so they probably don't connect the reaction with the balm. Instead, they think their lips are becoming chapped again, and apply more of the balm.
"A lot of users become sensitized to one of the ingredients, and it causes an inflammation," Frey says. "This leads to them using more of the product, and they get themselves into a vicious cycle."
If you try out a new brand of lip balm and it initially makes your lips feel nice and numb, but then you experience increased inflammation or irritation, this might be the case for you.
You can find listings of active ingredients of all balms online. Classic ChapStick has camphor, while ChapStick Medicated and Carmex have both camphor and menthol. Burt's Bees has neither, but it does have lanolin, which can cause negative reactions in some people.
If you suspect your balm is irritating your lips, there's a simple solution: check the label, and if it has one of these ingredients, stop using it. You won't experience any sort of withdrawal — remember, they're not actually addictive.
And if you want to improve the state of your lips while pulling yourself out of this vicious cycle, there are some simple things you can do.
Basic lip care recommendations
Apart from lip balms, dermatologists have a few other recommendations for preventing your lips from drying out during the winter.
Try to cover your mouth with a scarf when you're outside, especially when there's a strong wind. Put a humidifier in your room, so your lips don't have to contend with dry air at night. Avoid licking your lips, because when your saliva evaporates, it can carry away some of the protective lipid layer as well.
And, if your lips still do get chapped, there are lip balms out there that don't have ingredients that might cause irritation.
"The best products are the ones with the fewest ingredients," Frey says. Aquaphor Lip Repair for instance, doesn't have menthol or camphor. And if you want to take the simplest route possible, you can use pure petroleum jelly.