Tips on which ingredients to use and which to avoid.
Our lips – one of the most important areas of our skin but among the most neglected or taken for granted – until something goes wrong. Then, they become everything. I should know. In recent months, my lips have consumed much of my attention. They became dry, crusty and seemingly insensitive. I was miserable and was afraid that I had somehow ruined my lips forever. If you had told me there was a crazy expensive magic pill that could give me my lips back, I would have paid it in a heartbeat. No questions asked.
I thought I was trying everything, but as it turns out, I was trying all the wrong things and most of them dried my lips even more. I was desperate! I finally found a natural solution that helped get me through the worst of it, but I also knew that I needed to change my approach to my lips. I think most of us do. Fortunately, Naturopathic Doctor Jennifer Ito is helping to answer our questions by offering natural ways to care for our lips so they’ll care for us. She also shares tips on which ingredients to use and which to avoid.
Peppermint Tea & Me: Why are our lips important?
Dr. Jennifer Ito: They’re a very sensual part of our body because they’re full of nerve endings. They play a large role in making us feel female and feminine, they’re part of how we give and receive pleasure and they affect how we enjoy food. We kiss our baby’s foreheads with our lips. All of this affects our whole brain health and the release of oxytocin, which impacts our calmness, our happiness and our sanity. It’s a really big deal. They’re a small part of the overall surface of our skin, so it’s easy to take them for granted, but they have a really big impact in terms of the overall effect on our experience, our sensual experience of things.
PTM: Why is it important to take care of our lips?
Dr. Ito: The skin itself that goes across lips is thinner and more fluid which makes them more vulnerable, meaning they need more care and attention. But it also makes them really attention grabbing, both internally and externally, if there’s a problem of any kind.
PTM:Why should we pay attention when we notice we’re having issues with our lips?
Dr. Ito: From your lips all the way down to your anus, this is all one long tube and it’s all functioning together. When there are problems or inflammation in your mouth and around your mouth, it’s reflective of and will cause problems in your whole digestive tract. This is the seed of health. If you don’t have good digestion, you don’t have a happy digestive tract. Since two thirds of your immune system is tied up in your digestive tract, it’s going to affect your health and your energy across the board. So, while your lips are what you see and experience most on the surface, they may be reflecting the health of your digestive tract as a whole, and you may need to think about restoring your health in a bigger way.
Another reason to pay attention is that we touch our mouth all the time and food and forks come in contact with it. Once you have any kind of break in your skin and that barrier is compromised – the crustiness or split or even just the dryness itself – it makes your lips more vulnerable to all kinds of infections, and it can become a self-perpetuating problem. When things go wrong with your lips – they hurt, or they bother you, or they feel dry – you’re going to lick them and that’s going to dry them out even further. It just becomes a vicious cycle, so you want to really jump on it and take it seriously.
PTM: What can we do to treat dry lips?
Dr. Ito: If your lips are a little dry, and you put on Chapstick two or three times that day, it’s probably over tomorrow. But if it gets away from you and things get kind of dry and crusty, then it can really take some time and like a lot of attention. You’ll want to put some kind of protective barrier, like a lip balm, over them to prevent the vicious cycle I just described. But, that does very little to actually heal them. It’s more about getting the lips in a position to heal themselves, which is a lot of what natural medicine is always about. Just setting your body up to heal itself.
PTM: Are there products or ingredients we should avoid?
Dr. Ito: You’ll want to avoid lip balms or products (even natural ones) that have menthol, Eucalyptus, camphor, or any minty kind of ingredients. These things feel good, and they smell good because they’re a bit numbing and cooling, but there’s a lot of problems with that. That short term numbing can actually desensitize your lips over time. They do work in the short term, but they can really very quickly become something that you sort of depend on.
Also remember that where lip gloss or lip balm goes, it doesn’t absorb into your skin, you eat it off slowly and it’s going to get directly into your blood stream. When you look at lip gloss or lip balm, read those ingredients. If you wouldn’t eat it, if you feel like it doesn’t sound safe, then don’t put it on your lips. Vaseline or any type of petroleum jelly should be considered among these because they’re mainly a petroleum oil byproduct, and that’s not something that you want to eat a lot of.
PTM: Are there ingredients we really want to see in the lip products we use?
Dr. Ito: I would probably just go with a healing salve of some kind, or a natural lip balm. Coconut oil is a common base in lip balms, and I think it’s a good one, because it will protect the lips, kill the herpes virus, help heal cold sores and those sorts of things. The other kinds of common ingredients are beeswax and olive oil. Those things are fine too. Mostly what they’re doing, in any of those kinds of balms, they’re providing a protective layer that will give your lips a chance to heal themselves. For herbs, Calendula, Comfrey, Licorice and Lemon Balm are also really anti-inflammatory, good for healing, very soothing and anti-herpes virus.
PTM: What about Tea Tree Oil? I’ve read that is helpful for treating lips.
Dr. Ito:Tea tree oil has a lot of anti-fungal properties, so it would be good if you feel like you have candida going on around your lips. But, if it’s just general dry lips or drying cracked lips, I don’t think that I would do tea tree oil because it has the same drying properties as menthol.
PTM: We’ve talked about treating dry or damaged lips, but besides drinking lots of water, what can we do to prevent problems with our lips?
Dr. Ito: I do think it makes sense to be a little proactive and preventative. I don’t know about all year round or every day, but there little habits you can do easily. For instance, when you brush your teeth, there’s always going to be toothpaste that gets on your lips and the corners of your mouth. As you wash your face or do your makeup, make sure you’re getting any toothpaste residue off your mouth that might be drying. Another habit is that if you’re somebody that spends time outdoors, I would probably have some kind of sunscreen lip balm on all the time. Also, have lip balm lying around everywhere where you’ll see them because that will remind you to use them. Another tip is that every single Christmas, put nice lip balms in everybody’s stocking because winter means dry air and dry air can mean dry lips. Do the same thing for back to school shopping, include lots of lip balm.
PTM: Is long term damage to our lips irreversible or is there a way to restore them?
Dr. Ito:It’s not irreversible. For any tissue, any part of your body, you can increase the sensitivity with practice, focus and care. I mean it’s goofy, but as part of not only just your lip health, but your overall body health, I like the little balms that you actually put on with a finger versus a stick because then you’re touching your lips. So, you can just deliver a little love in that sense. But put it on with that intention, like you’re putting a little love on there. That is kind of a self-care thing. Then notice and pay attention to the feeling of the lip balm going on your lips. If you’re doing it with your finger, notice what’s my finger and what’s my lip because I’m feeling both things at the same time. But your mind can sort it out if you ask it to.And these things increase sensitivity.
That’s why I don’t like the menthol because it’s such a strong stimulation that it actually decreases your sensitivity. What you want is to be able to feel more and more, with less and less stimulation. You want your lips to be sensitive. And you can do that by giving them attention.
Recommended resources: For regular lip maintenance, Dr. Ito uses Wild Weed Salve and All Purpose Salve from Wise Woman Herbals. Neither of these should be used on broken skin. **Note: The All Purpose Salve says it’s “For external use only.” When I called the company to find out if it’s okay to use on lips, they said yes because it would be in small amounts each time.
Personal note:To help treat my severe lip dryness that lasted for weeks, I finally mixed a base of coconut oil with a few of drops of tea tree oil and applied that regularly for a few days. It worked! That got me so that I could finally feel my lips again and the crustiness went away. As Dr. Ito said, I definitely wouldn’t use the Tea Tree Oil for more than just a short time. Now I just use coconut oil whenever I don’t have lipstick on – which is most of the time.