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What to do about dry lips

December 24, 1998|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

When fireplaces start to roar this winter, the logs won't be the only things crackling.

Exposure to the low humidity of the colder months can parch the lips, sometimes to a painful point.

Unlike the rest of the skin on the body, the lips do not harden and therefore need to remain moist, according to Dr. James Schiro, a dermatologist in Hagerstown. When their lips get dry, people tend to lick them, a process that, if repeated too often, will remove the oil protective barrier and make them even drier, he says.

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When the humidity drops below 60 percent, as it often does in the wintertime, the chances that lips will lose moisture increases. Add wind and sun to the mix and the risk grows even more.

"Prevention, by far, is the best approach," Schiro says. "The best thing would be a pure oil-type barrier," such as petroleum jelly, he says.

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Before stepping outside, people should apply lip balm that contains sunscreen, says Schiro. He advises against using such products regularly when not exposed to the elements because allergies to the flavoring and sun-blocking agents can develop.

Do not apply hand lotion or other moisturizing products containing water, Schiro says. Opt instead for ointments with a high oil content.

Nancy Horton, salon manager at Coolfont Resort in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., touts a lip protectant her salon sells that contains such natural ingredients as plant-derived castor oil, sunflower seed oil and carrot seed.

A popular item at Sagittarius Hair Skin & Nails in Hagerstown is the Vitamin E stick, which is applied just like lip balm, but is not as clumpy, says Dawn McLeod, hairstylist manager and makeup artist. She sometimes applies the product to the skin around her eyes when she gets dry there.

McLeod says the Vitamin E stick can be reapplied throughout the day. "Load it on at night," she says.

Schiro says that while Vitamin E can prevent some sun damage, the medical community has not proven that it provides any other significant benefits to the lips.

Those who already are suffering from chapping should apply petroleum jelly to their lips, Schiro says. If the lips are inflamed and peeling, however, the problem may have progressed to a point where a topical steroid is needed.

It is difficult to find over-the-counter steroid ointments, Schiro says, but they are available, as are prescription products. Hydrocortisone creams can be used, but are not as effective, he says.

Topical steroids should not be used for more than a week, Schiro warns, because a dependency can develop. If the receptors in inflamed lips are exposed to the ointments for too long, they become less responsive to the healing effects, so more of the product is needed, thus increasing dependency.

Stopping use of the steroid ointments then can lead to withdrawal, which could cause the original dryness problem to worsen, at which point prescription medications would be needed, he says.

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