The Beauty Brains highlighted a list of three useless cosmetic product categories on their Twitter feed a couple of days ago that they had found on a blog. The first two were pretty hard to argue with. Split ends are going to stay split whatever product you put on them. And cellulite creams, while they might work in theory they have yet to be shown to work in practice. But the third one suggested that lip balms damaged your lips barrier function. This means that while the lip balm itself protects your lips while it is there, it dries them out in the long run.
Well, it sounds like something that could be true. Lots of biological systems have feedback loops like that. And often the long term and short term effects can be very different. For example, if you are running you can boost your performance by having a short break. But if you have say a four week break then your fitness level goes down and your ability to run goes down. Is lip balm like this? Good for a quick fix but a bad long term bet?
Unfortunately the Canadian Yummy Mummy blog where the Brains found the list doesn’t go in for references so it gave me no idea about what the evidence for their assertion was. So I decided to look for myself.
Lip balms don’t seem to be much on the scientific community’s mind to be honest. I found about a dozen papers highlighting allergic reactions to ingredients in lip balms. This didn’t seem like very many given the huge number of lip balms sold every year. There was a fascinating Japanese paper that showed that people thought that lip balms worked better when they smelt of lemon. I’d be all over that if I was working on a lip balm right now. But it doesn’t shed any light on the suggestion that lip balms have a damaging effect on the lips.
It occurred to me that I didn’t know much about how different the skin of the lips is from the rest of the face. Again, it turned out that this is not something that has been studied very much. There was a ten year old paper that looked at the barrier function of the lips and discovered that it wasn’t as good as that of the rest of the face. This is something that those of us who have lips have probably noticed. Your lips do get dry quicker than the rest of your face when you get stressed.
They looked a bit closer and concluded that the skin cells of the lips were not as well developed as those on the normal skin. Again this is interesting stuff, and goes some way to explaining why we need lip balms in the first place. But it doesn’t give any reason to suggest that lip balms are a problem.
All in all it was a bit of frustrating search. Lip balms might interfere with skin cell development in the lips. And that might well make the lips drier than they would otherwise be. But speaking personally I only ever use a lip balm after my lips are already dry. As it happens we’ve had a very mild winter so far here in the UK but it has just turned cold and I have just noticed my lips are beginning to feel a bit drier than normal. They haven’t reached lip balm application level yet, but they at least show that lips can get dry without a lip balm. Normally I use the balm whenever I need it during the winter and discontinue it when it warms up again. It doesn’t seem to me that the lip balm is doing any harm. But who knows. I hadn’t really thought about it before so maybe I would be better off without.
All I can conclude is that this sounds like something one of the big companies that makes lip balms should investigate. If there is a problem here, it is one that is probably solvable which could lead to a better lip balm in the future.
Br J Dermatol. 2004 Mar;150(3):563-7. Functional properties of the surface of the vermilion border of the lips are distinct from those of the facial skin.
Kobayashi H1, Tagami H.