Most people have experienced chapped lips at some point in their lives. Medically known as cheilitis, chapped lips are characterized by cracks or fissures in the lips (usually the lower one) and dryness. Environmental stressors such as wind, cold temperatures, and the sun can lead to chapped lips. Products you use, such as lipstick, lip balm, and even toothpaste, can also cause chapped lips, notes Stat Pearls. (1)
According to a June 2018 article in Acta Clinica Croatia, there are several kinds of cheilitis. The most common types are:
- Cheilitis simplex
- Contact, or eczematous cheilitis
- Angular cheilitis
- Actinic cheilitis
- Drug-induced cheilitis (2)
Signs and Symptoms of Chapped Lips
In general, the signs and symptoms of chapped lips include:
- Cracks or fissures
That said, your symptoms may vary depending upon the exact type of cheilitis you have. Here are the signs and symptoms of each type: (2)
- Cheilitis Simplex Lip cracking, usually on the lower lip
- Contact, or Eczematous Cheilitis Dryness, scaling, and fissuring
- Angular Cheilitis Inflammation and redness at the corners of the mouth
- Actinic Cheilitis Red patches, puffiness, scaly plaques, and small bumps caused by sun exposure.
- Drug-Induced Cheilitis Lesions (sores)
Causes and Risk Factors of Chapped Lips
The skin on your lips is thinner than on the rest of your body, so it's more susceptible to dryness and chapping. Generally speaking, common causes of chapped lips include dry or cold weather, overexposure to the sun, and licking your lips too frequently.
Here are the specific causes of each type of chapped lips:
- Cheilitis Simplex Frequent lip licking is usually to blame. Licking your lips too much removes the oily surface film that keeps moisture in and makes them more prone to dryness and cracking. On top of that, digestive enzymes in saliva may irritate lips by extracting moisture from them.
- Contact, or Eczematous Cheilitis The culprit of this type of chapped lips is irritating substances, like preservatives and dyes found in products such as lipstick, toothpaste, certain foods, and even pens.
- Angular Cheilitis This type of chapped lips is common in people who have deep wrinkles at the corners of their mouths and who lick lip corners frequently. It can also be caused by diseases such as celiac disease. It’s frequently found in diabetics and people with psychiatric disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
- Actinic Cheilitis Also known as “solar keratosis,” this kind of chapped lips is due to chronic sun exposure. It’s often found in people who work outdoors such as farmers, construction workers, and lifeguards.
- Drug-Induced Cheilitis Usually it’s caused by retinoids (used to treat acne or psoriasis) or other medications like topical antibiotics or local anesthetics. (2)
How Are Chapped Lips Diagnosed?
Cheilitis simplex (run-of-the-mill chapped lips) can usually be healed with at-home remedies like drinking more water and using nonirritating lip balms. But if your chapped lips are severe, you may need to see a doctor who can make an official diagnosis and recommend targeted therapies, says the American Academy of Dermatology. (3)
To diagnose chapped lips, your doctor will ask about your symptoms, take a careful medical history, and do a clinical examination. They may also need to do a patch test or take a swab of your lips to check for infection. In some cases, a biopsy may be necessary so the skin on your lips can be examined under a microscope. (2)
Duration of Chapped Lips
The length of time it takes to heal chapped lips depends on how severe your condition is. Less severe cases, such as cheilitis simplex, can be healed in two to three weeks. If your lips don’t feel better after a few weeks, see a board-certified dermatologist who can determine the proper course of treatment. (3)
Treatment and Medication Options for Chapped Lips
Chapped lips typically heal on their own with at-home treatments. If your chapped lips won't go away — or if your lips become severely cracked or swollen — see your doctor. These may be signs of an underlying medical problem. (3)
Here are targeted treatment options for each type of chapped lips:
- Cheilitis Simplex Lip balm, petroleum jelly, topical corticosteroids, ointments
- Contact or Eczematous Cheilitis Topical corticosteroids and emollients such as Vaseline and Aquaphor
- Angular Cheilitis Topical antifungal medication, antiseptics, antibiotics, topical corticosteroids
- Actinic Cheilitis Emollients and topical corticosteroids
- Drug-Induced Cheilitis Emollients and discontinued use of the drug (if possible) (2)
Prevention of Chapped Lips
There are a number of steps you can take at home to prevent chapped lips:
- Try not to lick your lips too much. Saliva evaporates quickly and can leave your lips feeling even more chapped.
- Protect your lips. For maximum moisture and protection, choose a lip-soothing product that contains beeswax or petrolatum (petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline). Choose a nonirritating (fragrance- and flavor-free) lip product with SPF sun protection if you're outside for long periods during daylight in cold or dry weather.
- Cover Up. Cover your lips and face with a scarf on cold, windy days.
- Stay Hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids, and even using a humidifier can help, especially in the colder, drier months of the year.
- Avoid Irritants. Don't use any personal care products, fragrances, or foods that cause irritation.
- Close Your Mouth. Breathe through your nose instead of your mouth. (4,5)
Complications of Chapped Lips
Actinic cheilitis (the kind that’s induced by the sun) can lead to squamous cell carcinoma (lip cancer). In rare cases (usually glandular cheilitis and cheilitis granulomatosis), chapped lips can cause permanent swelling. (1)
Research and Statistics: Who Gets Chapped Lips?
Unfortunately, there isn’t precise data on how many people suffer from chapped lips. However, there is research on who is most likely to get each kind:
- Eczematous Cheilitis This form is most prevalent in people with a history of allergies.
- Angular Cheilitis This kind of chapping, around the corners of the mouth, is often found in older people who wear dentures and in children with immunodeficiency, which decreases their ability to fight off infection.
- Actinic Cheilitis This is common in people who live in sunny locales and people with fair skin.
- Glandular Cheilitis This rare inflammatory disorder is usually found in older men. (1)
Related Conditions and Causes of Chapped Lips
Some skin conditions and other chronic disorders can also affect the lips, leaving them feeling dry, cracked, or irritated. These conditions include:
- Lichen planus
- Lupus erythematosus
- Autoimmune bullous diseases
- Crohn's disease
- Certain nutritional deficiencies (1,2)
Resources We Love
American Academy of Dermatology
The AAD works to advance the diagnosis and treatment of conditions involving the skin, hair, and nails. This includes chapped lips; check out their recommendations from dermatologists on how to keep your lips healthy, including a list of ingredients that are beneficial and those that aren't. Tip: If you feel stinging, burning, or tingling when you apply a lip product, that's not necessarily a sign that it's working, but rather that it's irritating your lips.
The Mayo Clinic is one of Everyday Health's most trusted sources — and a go-to resource. Their website covers a wide range of medical and wellness issues, including advice on treating chapped lips.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Bhutta BS, Hafsi W. Cheilitis. StatPearls. August 2020.
- Lugović-Mihić L, Pilipović K, Crnarić I, et al. Differential Diagnosis of Cheilitis — How to Classify Cheilitis? Acta Clinica Croatica. June 2018.
- 7 Dermatologists’ Tips for Healing Dry, Chapped Lips. American Academy of Dermatology.
- Chapped Lips. MedlinePlus. August 2020.
- Gibson LE. Chapped Lips: What’s the Best Remedy? Mayo Clinic. November 29, 2018.