Lip balms, glosses, lipsticks—as a certified lip-color fiend, I’m fanatical about keeping my lips covered at all times (seriously, I could open a drugstore with all of the lip products at my desk). You’d think that would mean perpetually soft, moisturized lips, and yet at least once every winter I can count on developing a lip spot.
Not a cold sore, or a blocked hair follicle, or a fungal infection—all of which are suggestions that inevitably turn up when I Google the problem.
The spots aren’t sore or itchy; they don’t get red or puff up or crack. They’re just little patches, usually right along the outline of my lower lip, where the skin stays rough, and dry, and frankly desiccated feeling no matter what I do.
They turn up seemingly out of nowhere, and after I spend a week or so obsessively applying lip balm and fighting the urge to pick, they disappear. Until the next time.
So what are these annoying little spots? According to the Internet, they could be bacteria from the mouth of my refillable water bottle (gross), or signs that I desperately need to eat even more kale, or an omen of my imminent demise (thanks, alarmists out there!).
According to Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City (a.k.a. someone who actually knows what he’s talking about), it’s most likely a sign of sun damage. “Just as you can get a precancerous spot on other parts of your skin, you can get a precancerous spot on your lips,” he says. “Particularly older patients, or patients who are fair-skinned.”
As anyone who’s ever embarked on the quest for a lipstick that will last through lunch can tell you, being a human who consumes food and beverages causes lip products to wear off faster than the rest of your makeup. Throw in the fact that some of the things we eat and drink can break down sunscreen, making sun exposure around the mouth even worse—and that many of us skimp on sunscreen coverage as we get close to our lips because zinc oxide is no one’s favorite flavor—and you’ve got a domino effect that leaves the outer edges of our mouths especially vulnerable.
Help prevent future damage by incorporating SPF-infused lipsticks, glosses, and balms (here are a few of our faves) into your daily routine, reapplying often (even in the winter, duh), and making sure your daily facial sunscreen is covering all the way up to your lips.
Not convinced that your dry spot is anything more than just dry? You can try out low-key exfoliation (Zeichner recommends a gentle sugar scrub for mild chemical exfoliation), but no hard-core peels and definitely no picking! After gently buffing away any flakes, slather on a thick, hydrating lip balm with petrolatum (we like Aquaphor Advanced Therapy Healing Ointment (it’s a classic for a reason) to help boost the skin’s barrier function. If you pass the two-week mark and the dryness is still lingering, make an appointment with a dermatologist.
While Zeichner notes that there are a variety of things that can cause changes in your lips (allergies, vitamin deficiencies, even Crohn’s disease) the bottom line is this: “If you have a rough, scaly spot that’s not improving with typical lip products, get it checked out.”