Lip balms packed full of strong ingredients and perfumes can turn chapped lips into irritated ones if you're sensitive. Judy Johnson finds the best performers and looks at the mineral oil debate
Just as the eye area needs extra TLC due to its delicacy, the lips need extra attention as quite frankly, they're probably the most vulnerable part of our biggest organ, the skin. With far fewer layers of skin and no sebaceous glands with which to self-moisturise, they can become sore, dry and chapped easily, particularly now that the colder weather has arrived.
"Lips contain no oil glands so are prone to drying out more than any other part of our body - think of sebum as our natural moisturiser, reducing the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface," explains Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting . "Lack of oil glands means lips lack vitamin E (naturally found in sebum), which is an antioxidant that helps protect our skin from the sun, making lips more susceptible to UV damage. This is very important for those destined for the ski slopes."
Whether you're a fan of the piste or not, the pure biological make up of the lip (Mother Nature wasn't so smart there, was she?) affects us all, but all is not equal in the land of lip balms. Until I started researching this column, I thought I had tried every single lip balm going (to no avail). Nothing has ever worked particularly well for me and if anything, I've found them to make matters worse - but it dawned on me that this could be down to the often fragrance-heavy formulas.
It's far harder to distinguish between a reaction and a product's intended effects when it comes to the lips; they're pretty red already, some balms promise to make you tingle as if this is a good thing and swelling could be mistaken for a desired 'plumpness' that we all wish we had enough collagen to exude naturally. But through testing, I've come to notice a few signs - itching is of course an instant no-no and if the tingle stings more than it cools, it's swept off with my cleanser in a matter of seconds.
So which ones are best for sensitive skin? Such a simple question, I thought, but it turned out that questioning the ingredients of lip balms opened up a whole can of beauty worms. Many people (both in the industry and the customers) believe that mineral oil and other such ingredients are the devil - bad news for all of us who rely on our Vaseline tins - while others think it's essential for protecting skin and holding hydration in. In fact even Caroline Hirons , the internet's favourite skincare genius and the biggest advocate of avoiding mineral oil in products, says that with lip balms she makes an exception; it just needs to include other beneficial ingredients.
But who's right? Dr Bunting admits she's definitely pro-mineral oil. "Petrolatum, which is found in good old Vaseline, is one of the safest, most effective occlusive moisturisers around. It forms a seal, which prevents water evaporating from the surface of the skin – this is the most useful type of moisturiser in winter months, when humidity is low," she explains. "It also has an emollient effect, filling in the gaps between skin cells which are being shed, creating a smooth surface. The issue with using it as a lip balm from my perspective is purely a cosmetic one – it doesn’t adhere to the lips quite as well as lanolin, which is also an occlusive moisturiser. So I generally recommend lip balms made from lanolin for this reason – it just stays on better."
Having tested out a mixture of brands - some entirely natural, and some largely based on mineral oil or petroleum, I've come to the decision that I sit on the fence. A conflicting statement I know, but here it is: both work for me. If I had to choose, though, I'd go for the natural route - this is going on your lips, after all, so if I'm going to ingest some I'd rather know that it's natural ingredients - but my favourites are a mixture of the two. The petroleum based balms felt more instantly soothing and protective, but I found the natural ones to actually make my lips feel less chapped afterwards. Whichever one you choose, though, the ingredients list is important to check.
Dr Bunting explains: "Lip balms can sometimes contain ingredients like camphor and menthol, which create a pleasant sensation when applied. But they can irritate - leading to lips paradoxically getting drier. This tends to make us lick our lips, which exacerbates the situation further because saliva is an irritant. For that reason, I like stripped-back lip balm! This is certainly the best option for those with sensitive skin."
No matter what you use, I've come to realise there's no such thing as a lip product that truly fixes dry and chapped lips; just as your hair needs to be cut regularly and your feet need buffing, lips will always need a little help. Whether you're a slave to more natural formulas or a fan of Vaseline and its mineral oil cousins, here are some of the best that I've tried:
Clarins Moisture Replenishing Lip Balm
£19.50, Buy online here
A mineral oil-based balm in a tube, this is one of my favourite balms (and it lasts ages). Clarins is well known for its plant extracts and this balm's rose wax, shea butter and sunflower seed oils together with the occlusive base keeps lips protected and nourished. It does contain 'aroma/flavour' which I take to mean fragrance of some kind, but I had no issues with it.
Avene Cold Cream Lip Cream
£8, Buy online here
This tube of thick balm is a triple threat for your lips (a good or bad thing depending on your preference) as it contains mineral oil, lanolin and petrolatum. Together with the brand's spring water and shea butter it forms a very protective barrier. Again, fragrance has been sneaked in here - not something I'm pleased by but the amount is small enough that it didn't cause any reactions.
Aromatherapy Associates Moisturising Lip Balm
£16, Buy online here
Of the natural brands I tried this was my favourite; not least because despite loving the brand I can't use a lot of their products or enjoy their spa treatments due to the strong essential oils. A waxy pot of balm, it takes a while to apply enough to make a difference but once on the natural rose, vanilla, calendula and cocoa butter formula creates super soft lips.
Malin + Goetz Lip Moisturizer
£10, Buy online here
While this feels like a thicker, petroleum-based balm, this gel-like formula is actually full of fatty acids which work to hydrate and protect the skin. Containing no nasties and no fragrance, I'd buy it again in a flash. It really works.
Lanolips 101 Ointment
£10.99, Buy online here
You heard it from Dr Bunting above, and I can testify that lanolin really does work when it comes to staying power and long lasting softness for your delicate skin. The original and, in my opinion, best, is the Lanolips 101 Ointment. Beauty insiders love it, as it contains pure medical grade lanolin - and that’s it. Simple yet brilliant; use it everywhere.
Twelve Hyaluroil Lip Treatment
£28, Buy online here
I’m slightly cheating by including this here, as it’s not a balm - but nothing works quite like this treatment oil to soothe and, more importantly, repair chapped lips. Twelve, created by pharmacist and botanical expert Pedro Catala , is a results-driven range which focuses only on the ingredients you need for better skin; in this lip oil is hyaluronic acid, konjac root powder (which helps to naturally condition the lips), antioxidants, organic argan oil and sunflower oil. It leaves lips glossy and healthy looking while making sure chapped skin feels immediately softer and protected.
Sukin Paw Paw Ointment
£6.99, Buy online here or at Holland & Barrett
Paw Paw (also known as papaya) has long been used in skincare - but often, the products you see on the shelves use only a small extract, together with petroleum jelly. However, with no mineral oils (or parabens, if you’re avoiding those too), this multi-purpose saviour from Sukin uses fermented Paw Paw plus castor seed oil to help hold moisture and soothe sore lips and skin. A generous 25ml tube, it’s a great budget buy as well as being vegan-friendly, and perfect for sensitive skin on the lips and beyond; use on any dryness, irritation or even nappy rash for instant relief.
What are your favourite lip balms or products for sensitive skin? Let me know in the comments!