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It's always on their lips

Compulsive balm users keep relief handy, but doctors say it's more nervous habit than medical necessity.

March 01, 2004|Stephanie Shapiro | Baltimore Sun

Ask habitual lip balm users about their habit, and some of them answer sheepishly.

"I noticed I had a little problem," says John Eichel, an 18-year-old employee of Princeton Sports in Columbia, Md. He claims not to panic if he can't find his ChapStick, but it really stinks, Eichel says, "if your lips are all chapped and it feels like razor blades are cutting into them."

Then there's Jacqueline Bethea, a 25-year-old Chicago entrepreneur who started a website for buying lip balm. "I personally revel in my addiction," she says.

She believes her parents are responsible. As a girl, Bethea received a ChapStick in her Christmas stocking every year, along with an orange and a Slim Jim. Today, "I carry at least 10 to 15 lip balms with me; my purse is just full of lip balms," she says. "I guess I'm spoiled for choice. I probably don't put the same one on twice in a day."

Even as some medical experts suggest that lip balm dependency can border on the obsessive, users are spending millions of dollars annually on the stuff. From a plain-spun remedy for chapped lips, the balm has evolved to become a customized staple of pocket pharmacopeias everywhere and a source of avid discussion among dry-lipped connoisseurs.

Bethea's site, Lipmedic.com, offers more than 250 varieties of balms from 70 labels. The balms come in pots, sticks, tins and tubes from around the world. There is vegan lip balm, Dirty Girl lip balm, Hostess Ho Ho Lip Balm, Wash Away Your Sins lip balm ("for liars, cheaters & wrong-doers") and lip balm made with emu oil and hemp. One of Lipmedic's bestsellers is Smith's Rosebud Salve, produced in Woodsboro, Md., since 1892.

Emollient enthusiasts numbering 2,000 subscribe to Lipmedic's online newsletter, and glowing testimonials promote the site. A customer named Julie writes: "Lip Balms are like VERY addictive drugs I can't live without and Lipmedic is a cure for my obsession."

Bethea is surprised that she hasn't been panned by Lip Balm Anonymous (www.kevdo.com/lipbalm), which takes a humorous-yet-serious approach to the question of lip balm dependency. The site features a 12-step approach to shake the habit, but also challenges lip balm marketing strategies, including the promotion of products that pander to kids.

To be sure, lip balm manufacturers have penetrated the market at every level, from ChapStick, which costs $1.69 a tube on Drugstore.com, to more expensive organic unguents found in exclusive boutiques.

Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, the maker of ChapStick, produced 130 million tubes of the product last year, says company spokesman Fran Sullivan. In general, U.S. sales of lip balms totaled $268 million at the retail level in 2002, according to a Kline & Company Cosmetics & Toiletries USA report.

Still, manufacturers take seriously urban legends in circulation that promulgate the idea that lip balm is unhealthy and perhaps even addictive.

On its website, the lip balm manufacturer Carmex debunks what the company calls "misconceptions," including the rumor that its product "contains a terrible acid that roughs up your lips and actually makes you need more Carmex."

The lip balm industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and ingredients for the product, which is usually classified as a cosmetic, must be approved by the agency. "The legend that somehow we put an ingredient in there that makes your lips more chapped, so you have to go out and buy more ChapStick, [qualifies as a] grand conspiracy theory," Sullivan says.

Different lip balms protect the lips in different ways. Ingredients such as petrolatum, cocoa butter and beeswax seal moisture already within the lips, while glycerin and other humectants draw water to the skin.

Dermatologists say lip balm use can become habitual, if not addictive in the technical sense of the word. "It is literally a $300-million market for a product that normally should not be needed at all," says Monte S. Meltzer, chief of dermatology at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "Lips are perfectly designed to take care of themselves."

And yet the protracted use of lip balm is an "extraordinarily common behavior pattern," Meltzer notes.

Eichel says he's not hooked. "It's not like I'm going to go through withdrawal if I don't have my ChapStick," he says. And even though he depends on lip balm, "I don't really see it as much of a bad habit. I'd probably quit smoking before I quit using ChapStick."

Meltzer attributes the vicious cycle of lip balm use to products that contain irritants such as menthol or camphor. Although these ingredients add a pleasant, anesthetic tingle to the lips, they also cause peeling and dryness, prompting users to lick their lips. Saliva actually "digests the lips," making them thinner and less able to contain moisture, spurring the need for more lip balm, he says.

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