When Chapped Lips Are a Sign of Something Much Worse

The Off the Record series features real-life excerpts from Dr. Kaplan's dermatology case files.


When you live in a sunny climate, such as Southern California, the trade off for our beautiful sunny weather is having chronically dry skin and lips. Other factors that can cause chronic dryness include genetics, your skin type, tanning and medications.


Dryness is significant on the lips because our lips are not like the rest of our skin. The wet shiny part of our lips is covered, not with normal skin, but with a thin delicate mucous membrane. Mucous membranes don't have the outer, water-proof covering that normal skin has. This is why, when we become dehydrated or sunburned, our lips are one of the first places we notice dryness. But chronic sun burn can also lead to pre-cancerous changes in our lips, that feel like persistently dry, rough, thickened skin. Sometimes scabs or white, scaly patches develop on the lip. This condition is called ACTINIC CHELITIS. The good news is that actinic chelitis is a PRE-cancerous condition. The bad news is, it can develop into skin cancer, if left untreated.


Many patients are surprised when I tell them that they can get skin cancer on their lips. Most of us know by now that sun protection is important to prevent skin cancer on our face and bodies. But for some reason, we do not give our lips the same care. In fact, lips are treated worse, because the majority of lipsticks and glosses on the market today contain petroleum jelly and oils as their main ingredient, without offering any SPF sun protection. When you go outside after using these ingredients, you are essentially frying your lips in the sun. This causes our lips to become dry, thin, and discolored. That is why you need to use a lip treatment, that not only nourishes and plumps our lips with healthy ingredients, but also protects the mucous membranes on our lips from sun damage.

Chronic sun exposure, along with lifestyle factors that negatively impact your immune system, such as smoking, drinking excessive alcohol, and getting sunburned, make your lips a primary target for actinic cheilitis. Because the lower lip sticks out more, and faces upwards toward the sun, actinic chelitis can occur more frequently on the lower lip.


No one ever wants skin cancer. But if skin cancer is found on the face or body, most of the time it can be treated by a simple excision and stitches. Even on the lips, skin cancers can also be be excised and repaired with stitches. But who wants the risk of a scar on such a visible part on your face? The good news is that if you develop actinic chelitis, it usually does not need to be surgically treated. Because actinic chelitis is still pre-cancerous, if it is caught early before a true cancer develops, lasers and creams may be successful in preventing it from developing into skin cancer. But it needs to be treated early. So if you lips remain persistently dry and scabbed, see your dermatologist, because it may be something more than just dry skin. In the meantime, always keep your lips protected with a nourishing lip balm that contains SPF, like the Perfect Pout Lip Balm.

Stuart Kaplan, M.D. has been in private practice in Beverly Hills for over 28 years. His expertise in medical and cosmetic dermatology has made him one of the leading dermatologists in the nation, and has earned him worldwide recognition as a Skincare Authority.

Inspired by the needs of his patients, he created KAPLAN MD Skincare. As a dermatologist, Dr. Kaplan helps patients to feel comfortable in their own skin, while helping their skin communicate a beautiful story.

This is what KAPLAN MD is all about – Real skincare solutions made with integrity.


To learn more about KAPLAN MD, click HERE.

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