In the past, I didn’t think twice about grabbing whatever lip balm that caught my fancy at the drugstore. The more colourful and yummy scented the better; ingredients be damned. With age, sensitive skin and a more disposable income, I have come to realise that not all lip balms are actually moisturising or good for your lips, let alone your health.

The primary purpose of lip balm is to provide a layer on the surface of the lips, to seal in the moisture and protect them from external exposure. Dry air, cold temperatures, and wind all have a drying effect on skin by drawing moisture away from the body. The lips are particularly vulnerable because the skin is so thin, which is why they are often the first to show signs of dryness.

Unfortunately, many lip balms contain allergens and irritants that end up perpetuating the very problems we’re trying to treat: dryness, peeling, cracking and flaking. This Dermatologic Surgery study found that 33% of patients developed contact dermatitis from applying topical vitamin E. The Contact Dermatitis Institute also lists vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherol) as one of the most prevalent allergens. They have an entire fact sheet on it.

Some of the ways vitamin E might appear on a lip balm’s ingredient label include: natural vitamin E oil, tocopherol or tocopheryl acetate. It can be man-made or derived from plants, but contrary to popular opinion, both forms can be allergenic. 

There are actually several harmful ingredients that you want to avoid when choosing an effective lip balm, including …

Petroleum Jelly / Petrolatum

Petroleum Jelly is an oil byproduct that may contain carcinogens (depending on the company’s refining process) and cause allergic reactions. It also suffocates your lips rather than moisturising them.

Though the product might feel soothing upon application, petroleum jelly is water-repellant and seals your pores so moisture can’t get in or out. Despite being approved as “safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Petrolatum is not a product you want to include in your natural skin routine when there are so many better alternatives.

Mineral Oil

Like Petrolatum, mineral oil coats your skin with a plastic-like layer and prevents it from breathing. When used repeatedly, it can also cause more severe problems as it’s derived from petroleum and may contain cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This can cause the skin to age prematurely. Is that something you want to put on your lips daily?

Phenol

Phenol is an ingredient used to kill bacteria growth, so it’s included in many skincare products. But this chemical has also been shown to cause skin irritation, kidney and liver damage, and even nervous system damage when absorbed through the skin regularly.

When you see it listed on lip balm ingredients – or any other skincare product for that matter – skip it.

Castor Oil

Castor oil is another thick, viscous liquid, and if you look closely, you’ll find it’s found in a lot of lip products. Derived from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, it is comprised of about 80 to 90 percent ricinoleic acid.

The problem with ricinoleic acid is that it can be an allergen – some even say, the main reason behind chapped and inflamed lips. This Contact Dermatitis study found that ricinoleic acid was the most common contact allergen, accounting for 54 percent of contact chelitis.

So what can you use if most commercial brands are packed with ingredients that dont really moisturise and can even cause allergic reactions?

A mixture of half a cup of Aloe Vera oil with one drop of Chamomile oil and two drops each of Rose oil and Geranium oil can be used on chapped lips to gain relief from the pain and discomfort of dry chapped lips. And of course, Jojoba oil is one of the best nourishing oils to provide instant relief from chapped lips.

Pure Jojoba Oil

Pure Shea Butter works really well as a moisturising lip balm. Many studies show that it is especially good at penetrating the skin and contains 60% fat, making it highly emollient. Shea butter is a skin superfood that comes from the seeds of the fruit of the Shea (Karite) tree and is naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. It offers UV protection (SPF ~6) and provides the skin with essential fatty acids and the nutrients necessary for collagen production.

Raw Shea Butter

Sun protection is important, but when choosing lip balms with SPF protection, be sure to opt for one with mineral sunblocks such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which do not cause allergic reactions, unlike chemical sunscreens. This is because mineral sunscreens usually stay on the surface of the skin, deflecting or scatter harmful UV rays, unlike chemical sunscreens which are absorbed into the skin.

At the end of the day, a good lip balm is important. It keeps the delicate lip area moisturised, prevent peeling and chapping and helps lipsticks apply better. Just be sure you select one that is made with ingredients that moisturise – and that you are not swayed by pretty packaging and scents – like I often tend to be!