The structure of the lips: why they are delicate
The skin of the lips, compared to other areas of the body, has a different structure. It is much thinner and more transparent, consequently the capillaries present below are much more visible and give the lips their characteristic rosy colour.
To be precise, it is the outermost layer, the stratum corneum, that is thinner. In actual fact, it is called the pseudo-mucous membrane of the lips.
The stratum corneum, despite being made up of dead cells, plays an important role in the skin’s defences.
It contributes 90% of the skin barrier function by reducing the penetration of foreign and harmful substances into the underlying epidermis and the evaporation of water to the outside (TEWL = trans epidermal water loss).
In the lips, therefore, the skin barrier is less powerful, so even the water content tends to constantly shrink and the lips tend to dehydrate.
According to recent studies it seems that ceramides, fatty substances that act as “cement” between the corneocytes, the cells of the stratum corneum, are very important for maintaining the optimal barrier function for the lip.
The skin of the lips also has other peculiarities:there are no hair follicles, while sebaceous and sweat glands are generally absent. This means that the hydrolipidic film is minimal, which increases the risk of dehydration. Finally, also the melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigment melanin, are present in smaller quantities.This means less protection against damage from the sun’s rays.
Dryness is the most common lip complaint. Dry lips are characterised by extreme dryness and fragility, with the appearance of cracks and even the formation of bleeding and painful “cuts” (fissures). The symptoms are very annoying: burning, redness, swelling, feeling of tension. Dry lips can be caused by many internal and external factors.
Internal factors are less frequent and are caused by vitamin deficiencies (vitamins B and C), viral, bacterial or fungal infections, and dehydration of the body.
In case of infection, it is advisable to avoid using lipsticks and cosmetic products that could spread it to surrounding areas, until it has cleared up.
Some medicines can also cause dry and chapped lips as a side effect: these include isotretinoin (antiacne), diuretics, anxiolytics and antidepressants.
However, the most common internal cause is atopic dermatitis: a state of increased dryness and weakness of the skin associated with a constitutional predisposition to respiratory and food allergies.
Precisely because of their more delicate structure, external factors are very important.
Let’s take a look at those most commonly involved:
- A cold or warm and dry, windy climate (such as in the mountains or by the sea) increases dehydration causing greater water evaporation.
- The habit of frequently licking and biting the lips: saliva actually removes the already thin hydrolipidic protective film resulting in dryness.
- Irritant or allergic contact dermatitis caused by aggressive products including soaps, toothpastes, mouthwashes, lipsticks.
It is, therefore, essential to avoid unsuitable or poor quality products that may contain irritants or sensitisers.
In such case, it is good idea to immediately suspend the use of any suspect product and contact a dermatologist for an accurate diagnosis using specific tests.
Remedies And Treatments
The first remedy is to hydrate from the inside (with a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, drinking at least 2 litres of water a day) and from the outside through the application of lip balms with a nourishing, moisturising and protective action.
They must be applied generously in the morning and evening and during the day (even under the lipstick).
In the evening or when needed, it is possible to apply them generously like a mask/pack, performing a real shock treatment to counteract dryness and dehydration, and always have soft and protected lips.
The most suitable substances to protect the lips from wind, sun, and the cold are plant ingredients that restore the barrier function.
Of these, one of the most effective and rich is shea butter, a natural product with emollient and healing properties that can soften the lips and accelerate skin repair.
Vitamin E, with an antioxidant and soothing action, and the essential fatty acids contained in various vegetable oils (wheat germ, sunflower, flax seed) can also be useful in the formulation of lip balms.
In the absence of internal or external pathologies that would require an assessment and prescription of a treatment by a dermatologist, these cosmetics can be useful and effective for preventive purposes and to reduce the burning, as well as improving the aesthetic appearance of dry and chapped lips, and even resolving the issue.