A natural guide to lip glosses, balms & sticks

Anyone who has experienced them will vouch, peeling, dry, flaky, cracked lips are no fun. This is why in addition to your handbag and night table, lip balms tend to find their way into places you wouldn’t usually think to stash beautifying products – your car, work desk, and gym bag. You can put this down to the fact that they pack a hefty beauty punch far beyond just their beautifying properties. They soothe, nourish, hydrate, repair, and, most of all, infuse your lips with a supercharged dose of moisture.

Brands like Guerlain might have sold their protective salves as far back as 1828, but even before that, early Egyptians used natural oils, beeswax, and honey to soothe their lips, while Victorian ladies used crushed rose petals to concoct theirs. If you go with ‘The American Frugal Housewife’ author Lydia Maria Child’s suggestion, you would use earwax to treat cracked lips. Sounds horrifying?

Luckily for us, we have it far easier today, and brands are only too happy to cater to our lip demands. Consider this: the global lip balm market is expected to reach USD 1.5 billion by 2026. But the variety of balms and elixirs out there can be confusing to say the least. From thick and gloopy formulations to healing and hydrating ones, from oils, waxes, and butters to SPF-infused all-rounders, how do you pick a balm that doesn’t come packed with ingredients and chemicals that can damage your lips, and, why do we need a balm anyway?

Given that the lip barrier is thinner with fewer oil glands, they are more prone to barrier damage. This is where balms come in, which work as occlusive agents sealing the transepidermal water loss. Dr. Kiran Sethi, MD, Medical Director, Isya Aesthetics, and author of Skin Sense, finds balms essential to protect against exposure to the elements that can make your lips chapped and uncomfortable. “Using lip balm regularly prevents the dryness that might lead to fine lines forming around your mouth over time,” she says.

Is Natural Always Better?

For Dr. Renita Rajan, Chief Consultant Dermatologist and Advisory Partner for The Lip Balm Company, opting for plant-based balms with natural colorants and vegetable-derived tints that look and feel as good as synthetic ones is preferable. Sethi agrees that natural lip balms can work wonders when they use the correct base ingredients, but prefers recommending them to those with sensitive skin or who are prone to allergies. The issue with these balms, she finds, is that they are limited in efficiency because they require a base cream to dilute them to work. “If you have known allergies to common allergenic substances like lanolin, beeswax, or nut oils like almond oil, keep a lookout to avoid them. Opt for hypoallergenic or fragrance-free options if you have sensitive skin,” she adds.

Then, lies the question Of Petroleum Jelly.

Think of a lip balm, and the most common ingredient that comes to mind is the ubiquitous petroleum jelly — the same one responsible for cult classics like Vaseline and Chapstick. Until recently, it was considered to be your go-to balm staple. Not for these experts, though. Rajan believes that petrolatum-based lip balms are a double-edged sword — they are cheap and work well but can also contain a fair bit of toxic contaminants. Dr. Madhuri Agarwal, Founder & Medical Director of Yavana Aesthetics Clinic, advises avoiding petroleum jelly as a regular lip balm. But she does list a few uses for it. “Use it as an occlusive in extremely dry weather or as the last layer after applying emollients. Always protect your lips with an occlusive like petroleum jelly before applying ingredients like salicylic acid, retinol, and benzyl peroxide on your face,” she says.

Narrowing Down The Ingredients

Cosmetic Dermatologist, TEDx Speaker, Author, and Medical Director of Skinfiniti Aesthetic & Laser Clinic, Dr. Jaishree Sharad, notes the common offenders: fragrances and artificial colours and dyes responsible for allergic reactions; ingredients like menthol, camphor, and phenol that can cause a burning sensation; and salicylic acid, an exfoliating agent that can be too harsh. Other perpetrators include retinol, vitamin C, preservatives, parabens, phthalates, and hyaluronic acid. The latter, Agarwal warns, can work in reverse and dehydrate the lips. Essential oils are the other big no-nos, as they can be potent irritants and even endocrine disruptors. While sun protection is crucial, chemical filters in lip balms like Octyl methoxycinnamate can get absorbed into the body. Instead, opt for ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

The Right List

So how do you buy a balm? It starts with reading the ingredients list carefully. “Ceramides, squalene, glycerin, colloidal oatmeal, shea butter, and beeswax are beneficial for lips. They are emollients and occlusives that retain the water in the skin and help decrease free radical damage,” lists Agarwal. You can also add vitamin E, cocoa butter, coconut, almond, and jojoba oil to the list. “If you have particular issues you want to address, such as sun damage, fine lines, or cold sores, lip balms with active ingredients can provide targeted treatment and offer benefits beyond basic moisturisation,” says Sethi. Lastly, when it comes to buying lip balms, Sharad points out that it all boils down to this easy step: “Pay attention to the ingredients and how your lips react to them to determine the best one for you.” It’s really as simple as that.

Written by

  • Faye Remedios

    Faye Remedios has been writing about luxury, beauty, fashion, and lifestyle for over 15 years. With a background in both journalism and marketing, she has been published in Vogue, Elle, The New York Times, Mint Lounge, The Voice of Fashion, Khaleej Times, Cosmetics Business, The Hindu, The Times of India, and Mumbai Mirror, among others.

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