Urban legend or pressing health concern? Two addiction experts and a dermatologist weigh in.
Illustration by Ben Thomson
Who hasn't craved the sweet relief of slick moisture on their dry, chapped lips? Who hasn't rummaged frantically through their bag, pouring out its entire contents in search of waxy bliss? Being addicted to lip balm is one of those pervasive urban myths that we've heard since childhood, so it feels like it must be true. Also, it feels true. But, can you really be addicted addicted?
I turned to Anjali Mahto, a dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. "Lip balm does not contain ingredients that can cause a physiological dependency," she told me. "Behaviors can be addictive, but lip balm ingredients in themselves are not addictive." However, even though lip balm addiction is not a medically recognized entity, "There's nothing to say that individuals can't become addicted psychologically to the use of these products."
Next, an addiction therapist: Beth Burgess, author of The Happy Addict. How might a person, I asked Burgess, become psychologically dependent on lip balm? "Pathologically, when someone is addicted, their substance will give them a shot of dopamine, a reward chemical produced by the brain," she said. "So, when dopamine levels drop, the addict turns to their substance once more."
According to Burgess, scientific research has shown that the first taste of anything that makes an individual feel unexpectedly good will be recorded in the brain as something of high value, making them crave that experience and seek it out repeatedly. So, theoretically, people can become addicted to anything that falls into this category of experience, including lip balm.
I'd ask them: What happens when you don't have lip balm? What are the emotions?
Developing a severe addiction to lip balm, rather than simply finding it a comfort now and then, is also a sign that a person likely has a compromised dopamine system, often referred to as an "addictive personality." And just as there are people who overuse alcohol and are not addicted to it, there can be people who overuse lip balm without being addicted to it—the trouble is, overuse and addiction may look the same from the outside.
So, how do you know if you just really, really like lip balm, or if you've got a problem? "An addiction is clinically described as a pathological relationship with either a substance or behavior that changes the way you feel," said Nicky Walton-Flynn, an addiction psychologist and the founder of Addiction Therapy London. "It's something you absolutely can not stop. With lip balm, you've got a substance, but it's not a substance that's mind-altering. It's the behavior that's mind-altering."
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Behaviors like repeatedly applying lip balm can develop into addictive behaviors because they serve to soothe anxiety in difficult situations, the same way people may smoke a cigarette when they're feeling socially anxious. "For example, if a child is going through their family breaking down and receives some gorgeous sweet-smelling, nice-feeling lip balm as a gift, which they find comforting, their brain may then forever associate the lip balm with comfort. And so an urge to use lip balm a lot begins," Burgess explained.
The behavior is serving as a soother," agreed Walton-Flynn. "It's feeding the idea [that], 'If I have dry lips, it's unbearable, I can not bear dry lips,'"
So, if you think you really are addicted, how do you wean yourself off it? Nicky suggests removing the stimuli—don't take your lip balm out with you. In the same way an alcoholic should avoid bars, a lip balm addict should avoid carrying lip balm. "Then I'd take a therapeutic approach," she said. "I'd ask them: What happens when you don't have lip balm? What are the emotions? What are the fears?" To manage the discomfort of not having lip balm, she suggests also finding a displacement activity, the way smokers are encouraged to chew gum.
But that doesn't mean we should shun lip balm altogether. Mahto reminds us that lip balm is extremely useful for the dryness that can occur in the winter months, as well as providing sun protection, and symptomatic relief for cold sores.
As Walton-Flynn put it, "Nobody's going to die from lip balm addiction."