Chapped Lips (Cheilitis)

Most of us experience dry or chapped lips at some point, but for some people, it can be a more serious problem. Also known as cheilitis, "chapped lips" refers to any acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) inflammation of the lips that can lead to symptoms like redness, dryness, and even peeling.

Chapped lips take many forms, and this article will explore some of the symptoms you may experience, as well as a range of causes and types of cheilitis and how the condition can be treated.

Close up of a woman applying chapstick to her lips.

Prostock-Studio / Getty Images

Symptoms of Chapped Lips

Dry, peeling lips are the most common symptoms of chapped lips, but cheilitis can also appear in the following ways:

  • White, sandpaper-like skin
  • Peeling
  • Redness
  • Swelling or inflammation
  • Itchiness
  • Burning sensation
  • Numbness
  • Ulcerations or sores

Symptoms of chapped lips most often develop on the colored area of the lips, also known as the vermilion of the lip. In some cases, though, cheilitis can spread to other parts of the lips, or cause blurring at the edges where the colored portion of your lips and your other skin meet.

Types of Chapped Lips

There are many different types of cheilitis. Cheilitis simplex is the most common form of dry lips and is caused by factors like heat, sun, dry air, or licking your lips. Other forms of cheilitis are:

  • Eczematous cheilitis
  • Allergic contact cheilitis
  • Angular cheilitis
  • Infective cheilitis
  • Atopic cheilitis
  • Actinic cheilitis
  • Drug-induced cheilitis
  • Glandular cheilitis
  • Cheilitis granulomatosa
  • Exfoliative cheilitis

Causes of Chapped Lips

Different forms of cheilitis have different causes. Common types of chapped lips like cheilitis simplex and eczematous cheilitis can be caused by irritants like:

  • Heat
  • Dry air
  • Licking your lips
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Eczematous cheilitis and allergic or atopic forms of chapped lips can also be caused by irritants, underlying allergies, or other forms of dermatitis.

When it comes to more serious forms of chapped lips, the cause is often long-term exposure to factors like drugs (drug-induced cheilitis), the sun (actinic cheilitis), or infections. Infectious organisms that can lead to chapping include:

What Medications Can Cause Chapped Lips?

Several types of medications can lead to chapped lips. Medications can cause irritation, dehydration, or other metabolic changes that result in chapped lips.

Retinoids and vitamin A supplements are common medications that can lead to lip chapping, but even some cosmetic products can cause chapped lips. Examples include salicylic acid, eucalyptus, camphor, and menthol.

Many other medications and even recreational drugs can cause your lips to become dry or cracked as a result of dehydration. These may include:

In most cases, drug-induced cheilitis is reversible once you stop using the product or medication that caused the chapping.

How to Treat Chapped Lips

How you treat chapped lips can depend on what caused the problem in the first place. Bacterial or fungal infections that lead to chapping may require medications to cure them, but in most cases increasing your water intake and adding moisture to your lips can help.

Using nonirritating lip balms and moisturizers—especially those with a sun protection factor (SPF)—are particularly helpful when it comes to repairing chapped lips, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Drinking plenty of water and avoiding habits like licking or biting your lips can help as well.

When looking for the right lip balm or treatment, the AAD recommends fragrance-free and hypoallergenic products that include ingredients like:

  • Castor seed oil
  • Ceramides
  • Dimethicone
  • Hemp seed oil
  • Mineral oil
  • Petrolatum or white petroleum jelly
  • Shea butter
  • Titanium oxide
  • Zinc oxide

Lip products that tingle or sting when you use them give the illusion of being more effective, cautions the ADA, but these types of balms can actually make your chapped lips worse. Try to avoid products that include flavors, fragrances, or ingredients like:

  • Camphor
  • Eucalyptus
  • Cinnamon
  • Citrus
  • Mint
  • Peppermint
  • Fragrance
  • Lanolin
  • Menthol
  • Octinoxate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Phenol
  • Propyl gallate
  • Salicylic acid

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Chapped Lips

In severe cases of chapped lips, you could experience problems like extensive peeling, ulcerations, sores, or cracking. Cracking at the corners of the lips is commonly associated with infectious forms of cheilitis—especially fungal varieties.

If your chapped lips are linked to another chronic issue, there can be a range of other complications. For example, actinic cheilitis is linked to superficial squamous cell carcinoma, and angular cheilitis is often found in people with conditions like Sjögren's syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Ignoring chapped lips as a symptom of these conditions can lead to a number of serious complications. In rare cases, severe lip chapping can lead to disfiguration of your lips.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Chapped Lips?

In most cases, your healthcare provider will be able to diagnose your chapped lips based on a visual inspection alone. Figuring out the cause of the chapping or detecting any complications might be more difficult.

Keeping a diary of when your lips are most chapped or irritated and reviewing medications and topical products you use regularly may help your healthcare provider zero in on a cause, but other tests may include:

  • A patch test to check for allergies
  • Biopsy (removing a sample of tissue for analysis in a lab)
  • Blood testing for nutrition status and other causes

When to See a Healthcare Provider

For most people, using an over-the-counter balm and staying hydrated can prevent and treat chapped lips. If you're avoiding irritants and applying moisturizers without relief, talk to your healthcare provider about other potential causes and treatments for your chapped lips.

Summary

Chapped lips are a common issue, especially when your lips are exposed to sunlight or harsh, dry air. Staying hydrated and protecting your lips with appropriate balms and moisturizers can go a long way in preventing and treating lip chapping.

A Word From Verywell

Chapped lips can be painful and easily irritated, but they rarely lead to severe complications. In most cases, staying hydrated and protecting your lips with balms and moisturizers is enough to avoid dryness and cracking.

If you have other symptoms along with cracked lips, your chapping won't go away, or the irritation spreads from your lips, it can be a good idea to see a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes chapped lips?

    Chapped lips have many possible causes, but dry air and licking your lips are the most common. Some forms of chapped lips can also be caused by bacteria, viruses, and even medications.

  • Can you prevent chapped lips?

    Staying hydrated and protecting your lips from sun and wind with balms and moisturizers can help prevent many forms of chapped lips.

  • Is there a cure for chapped lips?

    Depending on the cause of your chapped lips, treatments can range from increasing how much water you drink and using lip balm, to antibiotic or antifungal medications. See a healthcare provider if your chapped lips are not improving.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. DermNet New Zealand. Cheilitis.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasites: Leishmaniasis.

  5. UPMC Health Beat. How to heal cracked and chapped lips.

  6. Puga AM, Lopez-Oliva S, Trives C, Partearroyo T, Varela-Moreiras G. Effects of drugs and excipients on hydration status. Nutrients. March 2019;11(3):669. doi:10.3390/nu11030669

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By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.