Flaky croissants? Oui, s’il vous plaît. Flaky lips? No, thank you. No one likes their lips to feel dry and flaky like puff pastry. But many of us fight a perpetual battle with tight, chapped, even cracked lips. Here’s why our lips are extra sensitive to drying out — and making out — and how you can keep your lips kissably soft.
Our lips don’t have oil or sweat glands — special cells that regulate warmth, hydration, and moisture — like other areas of our body. So unfortunately, our lips are much more prone to drying out, Sahara Desert–style.
Also, our sensitive smackers are thin-skinned, literally, compared to other parts of our body. For example, the protective outer skin layer (the stratum corneum) on our face consists of up to 16 layers of cells. But on our pouters? Just 3 to 5 layers. This also explains why our lips are often naturally pretty in pink. The topmost skin layer is so thin that we can see the blood-filled capillaries beneath — the original “vamp” lip color.
Human lips have one of the highest concentrations of touch receptor cells in the body. So a sensation that barely registers when it grazes your elbow can set off fireworks when it lingers on your lips. And if that sensation is a kiss, you might decide to let it linger and linger and linger, causing an explosion of good feelings. (Cue the unforgettable scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”)
Your lips are your most exposed erogenous zone. According to Sheril Kirshenbaum, the author of The Science of Kissing, lips are “packed with sensitive nerve endings, [so] even a light brush sends a cascade of information to our brains helping us to decide whether we want to continue and what might happen next.” Oh, yes!
An article in Scientific American lays out where our brain processes these sexy details: “information [from the lips] arrives in the somatosensory cortex, a swath of tissue on the surface of the brain that represents tactile information in a map of the body. In that map, the lips loom large because the size of each represented body region is proportional to the density of its nerve endings.”
Since there are more than a million nerve endings in our lips, even tiny pecks can have a powerful effect. If you want to know how to become an even better kisser, check out our post, “The Science of Smooching.”
So you want to make your lips kissably soft? Good call. Even if you’re just blowing air kisses to yourself in the mirror, taking good care of your lips will help you feel more comfortable and healthy. Here’s how:
Before you hydrate your lips, you should remove any dead skin from the surface. Here are a few easy and economical ways to exfoliate:
• Wet a soft toothbrush with a little warm water (and optional, moisturizing oil, such as coconut oil), and very gently brush your lips until they feel smooth and soft.
• Create a sweet mix of sugar and water. Rub this mixture on your lips until they feel soft and you can gently scrub off the dead, dry skin.
• Wet a soft washcloth with warm water and gently exfoliate your lips.
Licking your lips only dries them out (see below). To truly help chapped pouts, you need back-up: a lip balm that both restores your skin’s moisture and keeps it locked in. The key is to look at the ingredients list to ensure that your chosen brand is up to the challenge — some balms just do one or the other. Here’s how to find the best balm, whether you get it in the grocery check-out aisle or splurge on luxe stuff. (If you want to double-check that the balm you choose is non-toxic for you and the environment, look at the ratings by the Environmental Working Group.)
First, restore moisture: Choose a lip moisturizer that is rich with “emollients” and/or “humectants” to hydrate and soften your dry lips. Those are just fancy words to describe what certain ingredients do when applied to your skin.
Humectants are ingredients that attract water. On your skin, humectants attract H2O from the deeper layers of your skin (the dermis) to the surface layers (epidermis). In humid environments, humectants can also attract water from the surrounding air into your skin. Some popular humectants in moisturizing lip balms include: glycerin, aloe vera, honey, and hyaluronic acid.
Emollients are ingredients that help maintain the soft, smooth, and pliable appearance of skin by filling in the crevices between the cells (the corneocytes) in the outer layer of our skin. These oils are readily absorbed below our skin's surface to improve skin smoothness and soothe dry lips. Emollients in lip balm include: shea butter, lanolin, coconut oil, almond oil, jojoba oil, and hemp oil.
Then, lock moisture in: Now that you’ve restored the moisture in your lips, you need a special ingredient to keep your lips soft for as long as possible. Protect that pout!
Occlusives are ingredients that form a protective barrier between your tender smoochers and the harsh, dry world. Just remember, you need to hydrate your lips first before you seal the deal. While these materials protect your lips, they don’t treat dryness. So it’s important that your lip balm also contains hydrating ingredients or that you apply a separate hydrating moisturizer first. Occlusives in lip balms might include: petroleum, beeswax, mineral oil, candelilla wax, and carnauba wax.
Make sure you're drinking enough water. The skin is an organ and like any other organ, it's composed of cells. Skin cells contain up to 30% water. We need to replace the water that’s naturally lost from our bodies each day. If your skin is not getting enough water, the lack of hydration can make your skin dry, tight, flaky, and more prone to wrinkling. Stay hydrated to help prevent dry lips.
For softer smoochers, avoid these common mistakes:
• Don’t lick your lips. This habit exacerbates dryness and irritation (be careful, LL Cool J!). Normally, our lips have a very thin oil surface that prevents moisture loss. When we lick our lips, we remove this surface and our lips are more likely to dry out. Digestive enzymes in our saliva may also irritate our lips. Don't lick to avoid dry lips!
• Don’t use camphor, phenol, menthol.These ingredients may create a nice cooling sensation, but over the long run, they can be irritating and further exacerbate dry lips.
• Don’t apply artificial fragrances. Perfumes on your pouters can be irritating and drying to your skin.
(for the extra-curious)
Starting from birth, your hypersensitive lips have been essential to your survival. They allowed you to breast- or bottle-feed, sensing exactly how to suck and maintain a tight seal so you could swallow.
As a toddler, your rosebud pout made it possible to eat everything from sticky peanut butter to drippy fruit pops — and to determine when something was too hot or spicy for comfort. Plus, your smackers let you say “mmmmm” when you liked what you tasted or express your disgust when you spat it out. Lips are essential to articulate speech. (Give them a little workout now by making the sounds p, b, m, f, v, and w.)
Later on, your smoochers became make-out mavens, potentially helping you to discern whether a mate had serious potential. According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, “Women in particular value kissing early on. Saliva is full of hormones and other compounds that may provide a way of chemically assessing mate suitability — that’s the biological brain stepping in.”
Throughout life, our luscious lips have also allowed us to share our joy with a smile — just one of more than 20 distinct facial expressions humans can make. Unleash your gorgeous grin every day!