Did an oil-rig worker design your lip balm?

Dr. Janet Zand

April 24, 2020



For decades people have been putting lip balm on their lips. It could be ChapStick, Blistex, Carmex or any number of brands.

But do you think any of them ever thought about the science behind their lip balm?

Probably not. And that’s unfortunate because the main ingredient in lip balm didn’t come from a science lab. It came from an oil rig.

You read that right. Your lip balm probably comes from oil.

Here’s the story behind this ingredient – and what you can use instead.

When it comes to skin care, you want healthy ingredients that heal and nourish your skin, right? You want products that will help your skin maintain or recapture a soft, smooth texture. You want products that use natural ingredients to restore the skin at a cellular level.

Now, think about who is qualified to invent products that meet these needs. You might be picturing doctors and scientists in white lab coats. You’re likely thinking about people who are experts in how the skin functions. You may imagine they’re knowledgeable about the solutions available from nature. And you assume they know how to combine these solutions in a way that not only helps the skin but also looks and feels good enough to sell.

If you pictured people like those, you’re right. Doctors and scientists with years of experience in the field invent most high-quality skincare products. And they’ve formulated some winners for just about every area of the skin.

The Dirty Secret of Most Lip Balms

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most lip balms. Most lip balms use an ingredient that was “invented” by an oil-rig worker.

That ingredient is petroleum jelly. Oil-rig workers discovered this product when they noticed it forming on their rigs. At first, they were frustrated. This slippery substance was gumming up their rigs. But they eventually realized that it was good for something: soothing cuts and burns. And some enterprising oil-rig worker used it to make a career change into skincare.

The workers weren’t wrong about petroleum jelly’s ability to soothe the skin. It does work. And if you’re constantly putting your skin into a harsh environment — like an oil rig — petroleum jelly might be good enough.

But if you don’t work on an oil rig, you want better than “good enough” for your skincare products. So you probably aren’t putting petroleum jelly on your hands or your face. For some reason, the lips seem to be the last hold-out.

Here’s why. You likely have a set of go-to products for your face. And most of those products can withstand some extremes. After all, the scientists who created them knew what they were doing. But you might not use a lip balm every day — at least, not at first.

Petroleum Jelly’s Vicious Cycle

When you first start reaching for lip balm, your lips are probably in an extreme environment – at least from their perspective. You might be skiing, exploring a desert, or relaxing on the beach. It’s all the same to your lips. You’re having the time of your life. Your lips are trying to survive the wind, the dry air, the sun, or all three.

In these environments, petroleum jelly seems like a lifesaver to your lips. That’s because it puts a layer of oil between your lips and those harsh conditions. Scientists refer to this layer as an “occlusive barrier.”

An occlusive barrier is a good start for protecting your lips. But there’s a problem: it wears off. And once that happens, your lips are just as vulnerable as before. In fact, if you don’t reapply in time, your lips could end up chapped or burnt. Applying more petroleum jelly will shield them again. But it won’t help them get better. So once the reapplication wears off, you risk damaging them further.

Normally, your lips produce natural moisture that helps soothe and protect them. But if you regularly do the job for them, they’ll slow down production. When the oil wears off, your lips will feel dry. But it will take them a while to ramp moisture production back up. So you’ll probably just reapply your lip balm.

This creates a vicious cycle because petroleum jelly doesn’t actually moisturize the lips. It just covers up the feeling of dryness when the barrier is in place. But once it wears off, your lips will be drier than ever — and even more out of the habit of producing moisture. You might have started wearing lip balm on your ski vacation. But now you feel like you need it when you get home too.

This is great news for the manufacturers of these products. You’ll be applying lip balm all day every day. You’ll probably buy their products in bulk so that you never find yourself without one. You’ll stash one in your purse, in your coat pocket, and in your car. The manufacturers will be thrilled. But your lips won’t be.

How to Break the Vicious Cycle

Your lips do need protection from the elements, especially if you’ll be in a windy or dry environment. But petroleum jelly will do your lips more harm than good. To truly protect and nourish your lips and break the vicious cycle, look for a lip balm that contains natural oil instead.

Sunflower seed oil, extra virgin olive oil, rosehip oil, macadamia oil, kukui oil, and hemp seed oil will all provide an occlusive barrier for your lips. But this barrier is breathable. So your lips still get the signal that they need to produce moisture. When the barrier wears off, your natural moisture can step in.

I especially like a blend of macadamia and kukui oil for the lips. The two Hawaiian nuts are sometimes called natural sunscreens. Their oils protect native Hawaiians’ skin from the tropical sun. Technically, these nut oils have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients that protect against the sun’s harmful UV rays. That’s what a sunscreen does.

You can find these two nut oils in a proprietary blend called SOLaLeur® that has been shown in studies to reduce inflammation by 85%. It works beautifully. The problem is that this ingredient is expensive. So not many companies are willing to use it.

If you can find this blend, it’s a much better bang for your buck than petroleum jelly. These natural oils won’t dry your lips out like petroleum jelly will. So you won’t have to reapply them as often. And they’ll truly be protecting your lips, not harming them.

If these nut oils are hard to find or more than you want to spend, you can consider products with any of the other natural oils I listed above. But steer clear of products made with mineral oil. This may sound “natural.” But it’s actually just another name for petroleum jelly.

What to Use Instead of Menthol

Another natural-sounding ingredient you should steer clear of is menthol. It may sound minty and fresh, but it will actually dry out your likes. Like petroleum jelly, menthol, camphor, and phenol will all start that vicious dryness cycle.

Instead, look for vitamins C and E to actually nourish and support your lips. Vitamin C should be in every lip moisturizer — at least, every lip moisturizer for people who want plump, full lips. That’s because vitamin C helps increase collagen production. More collagen means fewer fine lines.

When I have used lip balms containing vitamin C I could feel the difference almost immediately. I’ve found its effects can last for a couple of hours and makes  your lips feel fuller. And what’s more, you only have to use it two to three times a day instead of hourly. How often are you using your petroleum-based product?

And vitamin C does even more. Along with vitamin E, it protects your lips from exposure to the elements and environmental damage. A study from the University of Maryland Medical Center showed that vitamin E helps protect the collagen and elastin in the skin and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Vitamin E also helps to neutralize the free radical activity that occurs when you’re exposed to the sun.

You need both vitamin C and vitamin E in an absorbable form to reduce damage from the cold winter weather and the drying heat of the summer. The problem is not many lip balms contain both. But most products that contains sunflower seed oil does. So that’s another moistening ingredient to look for instead of mineral oil or petroleum jelly.

The last ingredient you need to moisturize your lips is the most common and inexpensive. It’s water. Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. If you’re dehydrated, your body will draw moisture from wherever it can be found — like from your largest organ, your skin.

Remember that if you’re over 50, your body needs more water than when you were younger. This is a time when you’re not able to absorb as much. Dry lips are an indication that you’re not drinking enough water. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re dehydrated. Sip some water or other liquid throughout the day.

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