UPDATE: Beware Addictive Chapstick

Dispute arose when we advised consumers to stay away from lip balm products containing salicylic acid and other irritants.

We’re not asking if lip products like Carmex are clinically addictive. We’re asking if some lip balms contain compounds that actually break down the lips and encourage further use. In essence, causing the very problem they’re supposed to be solving.

Furthermore, the Snopes hoax article is about Carmex. We’re talking about the range of lip balm products, not just Carmex.

But if we have to talk about Carmex, let’s do.

Carmex says that the salicylic acid, “serves as a pain reliever and an antiseptic. It also helps to dry cold sores.”

We suppose that if the user doesn’t have cold sores, the balm loses its drying properties…

Concentrated salicylic acid is used to remove warts, says Wikipedia. Diluted salicylic acid is commonly used in skin care products aiding in the removal of acne and skin aberrations.

Some readers pointed out that salicylic acid is the same as aspirin. Actually, aspirin contains acetylsalicylic acid, chemically similar, but different. You wouldn’t use wart remover to cure a headache, for example.

Others said that Carmex is for cold-sore removal, so we shouldn’t worry about its degenerative properties. However, versions of Carmex are marketed like lip balm or chapstick, and must be treated as such.

Snopes investigated and labeled claim about addictive Carmex false, in a post last updated in 1998.

Snopes main attack was the lack of primary quotes from affected consumers. The testimonials of Lip Balm Anonymous seem to think chapstick makers try to keep users hooked.

On Lip Balm Anonymous, Sylvia K writes, “I thought I could wait it out and get past the splitting and bleeding, but I gave in. After two months, I thought it was hopeless if my lips were still in that condition. I must emphasize that I was very conscientious not to lick them, but they still remained dry….What a perfect marketing scam, the creation of a perpetual need.”

Members of Metafilter seem to be suffering as well. Kjell asked in 2005:

    “I’ve tried to just stop using the stuff (cold turkey), but my lips just turned to sandpaper, and I couldn’t stop licking them and rubbing them together, and they even got to the point where they would bleed a little. Is there anything I can do besides buying a little tube of smack? How do I stop needing to us the stuff so much?”

An article published in US Pharmacist in 2005 apparently failed to impress, so here’s some more.

The AP wrote in January 2006:

    “Dr. Monte Meltzer is the chief of dermatology at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. He says lip balm often includes ingredients that cause a tingling, such as salicylic acid, phenol and menthol. Some of these are exfoliants that cause lips to peel. In turn, the lips become thinner and less able to protect against the elements. So people need to apply again, and the vicious cycle continues.”

In the same article, Carmex makers contend that the concentration of salicylic acid is too small to cause lip-thinning.

However, the president of Carmex concedes that some people, “might be sensitive to salicylic acid”

Some dermatologists don’t like many of the mainstream chapsticks and lip balms, finding they cause the problem they’re supposed to be solving.

“This so-called addiction to lip balm is very real. We can alter the way the skin grows from the basal layer to the surface by applying something to the surface,” said Dr. Nicholas Perricone, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, to the Daily Herald in 2000. “What happens with continued use of lip balm is we’re putting a message on the surface of the skin that says to the base of the skin, ‘Do not proliferate. Do not double. Do not grow as rapidly as you normally do,’ because the signal is saying, ‘Close down, we’re sealed on top.’ “

In, “Finding Relief For Chapped Lips” (Drkoop.com) Cheryl Burgess, M.D., a Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist says:

    “Often times, ingredients in the lip balm you turn to for relief exacerbate the problem…

    “People look for so-called medicated lip balms, which actually only means they include ingredients like a menthol-type preparation, camphor, spearmint [or] eucalyptus. Some have medicated properties, but for the amount they put in there it isn’t really medicating. Instead, it can be an irritant, drying the lips out even more and causing severely chapped lips.”

We don’t know for certain if Carmex or other lip balms are habit forming. However, next time we shop we’re going to look for lip balm labeled “Protectant,” (which Carmex isn’t). Protectants temporarily relieve chapped or cracked lips and help defend lips from the drying effects of wind and cold weather. The FDA allows protectant labeling on products containing contain allantoin, cocoa butte, cod liver oil, dimethicone, glycerin, hard fat, lanolin, mineral oil, and petrolatum 30% to 100%.

Salicylic acid is not one of the ingredients. — BEN POPKEN


Edit Your Comment

  1. Sam Glover says:

    It’s all about the Vaseline.

  2. JeffreyK says:

    So, ummmm… KY Lubricant. Can we put that under scutiny? And hand lotion? Anti-bacterial soap? Nasal spray? At some point it seems that overuse of any of these would desensitive the human body in some form. Prudent use of any product is important.

    Now, give me back my Carmex!

  3. JeffreyK: Spoken like a true addict :>

  4. Kos says:

    not forget that the spf ones are good in the sun. sunburned lips suck.

  5. bluegus32 says:

    I think the important thing to realize is that anyone who expressed their opinion with vehemence is correct and everyone else is an absolute idiot.

    Well that’s what I learned from this whole debate.

  6. cryrevolution says:

    (puts down carmex tube.)

  7. d0x says:

    I never get chapped lips and I never use chapstick..on the other hand my GF always gets chapped lips and she is always using chapstick.

    Interesting, time for an experiment.

  8. dox, my doctor told me to gently exfoliate my lips with a wet toothbrush after I brushed my teeth and rinsed my toothbrush, to remove the chappy layer without chemicals, and then to use a protectant (I use one of the chapstick unmedicated versions).

    It was remarkably effective. I’d never thought about “exfoliating” my lips! Your girlfriend may find similar success, although I suppose it depends on the reasons for the chapping and whatnot. But it doesn’t cost anything and it takes 10 seconds, so it can’t hurt to try!

    It makes your lipstick look a lot better, too!

  9. d0x says:

    She doesnt wear lipstick cause im allergic but ill give her the tip.

    She never seems to get chapped lips until she starts using the chapstick, the thought of her lips getting dry causes he to use it at the start of Fall and then all Winter long they are chapped. I see a connection.

  10. acambras says:

    I didn’t really start to use chapstick or hand cream a lot until I moved to Connecticut and had to cope with New England winters. I definitely use more chapstick and handcream during the winter than summer. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted (physically or psychologically) — it’s just that dry skin/dry lips can be uncomfortable.

    The way I see it, if something works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, then don’t. There.

  11. NeoteriX says:

    FYI Salicyclic Acid is used in a lot of acne medications, presumably to help dissolve the clogs in pores, but I could be wrong.

  12. AcilletaM says:

    The FDA allows protectant labeling on products containing cocoa butte?

  13. acambras says:

    Yep AcilletaM, the FDA allows protectant labeling on products containing cocoa butte. It’s great to use when something really chaps your ass.

  14. Chris says:

    bluegus32, that was an absolutely perfect summation of this screed. “Lots of people are bitching on the Internets, so it must be true.”

  15. Dervish says:

    Meghann states, “Some have pointed out that salicylic acid is like aspirin. Actually, aspirin contains acetylsalicylic acid, chemically similar, but different. You wouldn’t use wart remover to cure a headache, for example.”

    True and not true. Yes, acetylsalicylic acid is a different molecule than salicylic acid (with one functional chemical group swapped for another), but it’s not correct to imply that they don’t have similar effects. Salicylic acid can produce the same effects as aspirin, but also causes more gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and bleeding. The reaction it undergoes to become aspirin lessens these effects.

    And, as was mentioned in the comments of the first article on this topic, chemicals have different effects at different concentrations. It’s misleading to claim that since salicylic acid is used to treat calluses it shouldn’t be in lip balm. Most nonprescription corn treatments contain 6-17% acid (according to WebMD). From what I’ve been able to determine, Carmex is not more than 0.4% acid – it falls after phenol and menthol in the ingredient listing, both of which make up 0.4% of the balm.

    This isn’t to say that people sensitive to the chemical won’t have adverse reactions to Carmex – Wikipedia states that those with a sensitivity can even have problems with a small amount used as a food preservative. I just think it’s misleading to base the claim that Carmex is harmful mainly on the fact that the balm contains the same active ingredient as chemical peels.

    For the record, I’ve never had issues with Carmex making my lips worse off. I use the stuff even for regular chapped lips – not just for cold sores – and I find that if I put it on before bed it solves any chapping problems by the next morning. And it gets drier than a desert during Minnesota winters.

    Sorry for the long post.

  16. Jim C. says:

    Aspirin was developed from salicylic acid because the latter’s side effects could be severe. Salicylic acid is one of the breakdown products of aspirin and (if I’m reading the wiki article right) is what actually causes the therapeutic effects, so don’t panic about it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspirin#Discovery

    I still remember the original Chapstick with hexachlorophene. It worked wonderfully. The dead skin could be rubbed off painlessly in a few seconds with no harm the underlying flesh, and the lips would heal quickly. Too bad hexachlorophene was determined to be a carcinogen (erroneously, according to Wikipedia).

  17. Ben Popken says:

    From the very section you cite, salicylic acid sounds really fun:

    “Salicylic acid was also isolated from meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria, formerly classified as Spiraea ulmaria) by German researchers in 1839. While their extract was somewhat effective, it also caused digestive problems such as gastric irritation and bleeding, and diarrhea, and even death when consumed in high doses. In 1853, a French chemist named Charles Frederic Gerhardt neutralized salicylic acid by buffering it with sodium (sodium salicylate) and acetyl chloride, creating acetosalicylic anhydride. Gerhardt’s product worked, but he had no desire to market it and abandoned his discovery. In 1897, researcher Arthur Eichengrün and Felix Hoffmann, a research assistant at Friedrich Bayer & Co. in Germany, derivatized one of the hydroxyl functional groups in salicylic acid with an acetyl group (forming acetylsalicylic acid, an acetyl ester). This thereby greatly reduced the negative effects caused by the free phenolic group of salicylic acid. When in the body, the ester (aspirin) is hydrolyzed to free the active drug. This was the first synthetic drug, not a copy of something that existed in nature, and the start of the pharmaceuticals industry.

    Hoffmann made some of the formula and gave it to his father, who was suffering from the pain of arthritis and could not stand the side effects of salicylic acid.”

  18. foolgladly says:

    Burt’s Bees.

    Beeswax, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate & Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Lanolin, Peppermint Oil, Comfrey Root Extract, and Rosemary Extract.

    I started using it about 6 years ago, after getting over my fear that it’d have me wearing Patchouli in a week, and I’ll never use anything else.

    The peppermint’ll do your tingle, but it doesn’t leave your lips dry at all. Severely chapped? I swear you’ll be feeling better overnight; sometimes, it’s just a few hours.

    Oh: and you don’t constantly go back for more. I find myself losing it four days after I buy it because my problem’s solved.

    Just my two cents. Why do I feel like I’m helping you hang drapes?

  19. oarsman99 says:

    The Carmex scam is definitely real. My 18 yr old daughter was hooked for about 10 months. She tried to quit several times and couldn’t because her lips were drying out within minutes. It was gross to see her slather that stuff on all day. Once she finally admitted to herself that the Carmex was causing the problem she was able to quit cold turkey. She suffered miserably for weeks until her lips recovered. The makers of Carmex suck and people who are using it constantly are victims of an insidious marketing campaign by soulless scumbags!!!

  20. ltabor says:

    I personally use Spazzstick caffeinated lip balm (from Thinkgeek) and I find it addictive, but not because of any nefarious ingredients (unless I’m missing something). It just tastes so damn good, I find myself licking it off, therefore drying my lips further, therefore causing me to put more on.

    Thinking about this now, maybe I should go back to Burt’s Bees. I just started taking Accutane, and I need something that works as efficiently as possible because it dries my skin out so bad.

  21. Stickarm says:

    Burt’s Bees’ lip balms are quite good. In addition to their Beeswax Lip Balm, described by Chris M., they also make one called Honey Lip Balm, the ingredients of which look like this:

    Shea butter, almond oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, beeswax, candelilla wax, lanolin, confrey root, honey powder, rosemary extract, vegetable oil, fragrance.

    Another option is Dr. Bronner’s & Sun Dog’s Magic Naked Organic Lip Balm, which is good despite the name. It’s ingredients look like this:

    Organic avacado oil, organic beeswax, organic jojoba oil, organic hemp oil, natural tocopherols.

    Thirdly, Trader Joe’s sells an excellent lip balm (under the name Trader Johann’s) called Virtuoso. This one is SPF 15. The ingredients:

    Active: Octinoxate (7.5%), Oxybenzone (3.0%). Inactive: organic virgin olive oil, beeswax, organic jojoba oil, tocopherol, essential oil of spearmint, shea butter, rosemary extract, organic comfrey, organic calendula, organic St. John’s wort.

    How’s that for a window display?

  22. drsmith says:

    I have to commend the consumerist on their thoughtful research provided in this post. I would love to see more posts like this one.

    Personally, I’ve tried a lot of the products out there and most of them have a consistency that makes it feel like I put vaseline on my lips. ick. Finding one that tastes decent(cause you are going to get some of it in your mouth) and has a reasonable consistency is difficult. Right now I have a black tin of chapstick I got at a bingo event that works pretty good. I just wish the urls on the can didn’t take me to a generic page that doesn’t tell me where I can buy it.

  23. Mary Marsala with Fries says:

    BIG second on the Burt’s Bees lip balm. It’s all I’ll use.

    I was stuck in a hospital once with *very* dry air and my lips got chapped, so they gave me ChapStick. The crap has *alcohol* in it, which of course dried my lips out further, and I kept using it, many times a day, to try and stop the problem — by the time I left a few weeks later, I couldn’t talk without my lips bleeding. Had to see a doctor, who actually explained to me that chapstick is a horrible thing to use regularly on chapped lips due to dryness. So no way will I touch that crap again (nor will I use hand cream with alcohol in it. Alcohol is DRYING, you idiots, not moisturizing!)

    Also, sorry, but petroleum products do not belong on my face. Just…no.

    Beeswax and herbal ingredients = makes sense, does not do damage. Works REALLY well. And that peppermint oil not only tingles and pain-relieves way better than any stinky eucalyptus, but inhaling it will relieve most minor headaches (seriously, look it up) and is, IMO, second-to-none for unclogging sinuses. When I had a sinus infection last year, slathering the Burt’s Bees balm all over my upper lip and nostrils unplugged my face faster than even Sudafed.

    Yes, it’s usually three bucks, which is a lot. But I’ve paid just as much for super-hippy-ultra-organic-lip-balm before, and actually, Burt’s works better. Go figure.


  24. One thing that’s not widely known about Burt’s Bees is the lengths they go to to employ single moms, welfare recipients, and so forth, and provide real jobs and real training for them.

  25. Pelagius says:

    Great, thanks a lot Consumerist. Next thing you’ll tell me there is no Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny is dead. What am I supposed to do with all this damn Carmex now?

  26. phrygian says:

    I’ve heard that smoking’s bad for you and yet some people continue to smoke…

    Seriously, though, what’s with the vitriol over lip balm, Ben? Yes, some things we use/consume are ultimately bad for us. (My personal crusade is against high fructose corn syrup.)

  27. Tonguetied says:

    About once every 4 to 5 months I’ll dig out some Carmex and use it on my dry lips. I get better then I set the container to the side and basically lose it until another 4 or 5 months have passed. It works fine for me.

  28. feralparakeet says:

    And yet, the age-old question remains unanswered: What’s the best lip balm to wear when performing fellatio?!

  29. Halloween Jack says:

    Ben: the quote that you referenced above says nothing about the dosage that was used; toxicology types will tell you that it’s not the poison, it’s the dosage that matters. Both water and salt are necessary for life, and both will kill you in excessive amounts. I haven’t seen anything that suggests that the amount of salicylic acid that will dry out a cold sore is the same amount that might make someone’s lips dried-out and bleeding.

    There might be some people who do have a bad reaction to salicylic acid, menthol, or whatever else is in this stuff, in which case they should heed the old joke:

    Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.

    Doctor: Well, then, stop doing it!

    The Metafilter thread that you linked to has a response from someone who broke the cycle by reducing their use of lip balm from 100 times a day to about 4.

    feralparakeet: The type of lip balm really doesn’t matter; what does is using enough saliva to maintain lubrication. Or, er, ah, that’s what I read on the internets.

  30. boy says:

    I’m all about the burt’s bee’s. Works better than anything else I’ve tried, I’ve always got some in my pocket. If nothing else, it doesn’t melt being in my pocket all day, and doesn’t get nasty looking after a week like chapstick. I almost always use a tube till the end.