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