The scenario: You’re 20 minutes into a movie, sitting in the dark of the theater, when that same old feeling comes creeping back. You start moving your lips together to assess any dryness—it’s time for another fix. You start patting your pockets and find no little tube-sized lump in any of them. You panic. You get up and start crawling under the seats to see if that precious tube rolled away into a glut of popcorn and gum. You’re kicking adjacent seats and blocking people’s views and you just don’t care. The person you’re with hushes, “What are you doing?” You don’t even try to whisper back. There’s nothing but tragedy and desperation in your voice—I CAN’T FIND MY LIP BALM.
Friends, readers, countrymen: If this sounds like a familiar incident in your everyday life, it’s time to admit you have a problem. You’re addicted to constant reapplication and, chances are, even when you reapply, you never feel totally satisfied. I’m here to tell you you don’t have to live like this—I know, because I’ve been there. And now, with the help and support of several key products, I’m clean (no, really, they’re all super natural). I checked into Lip Rehab.
Not to belabor this metaphor, but there really is a two-part addiction here—one behavioral (the constant hand-to-mouth application process) and one more chemical (how the balm affects your actual lips). The behavioral trouble can be cleared up on its own, but is often symptomatic of a deeper problem with the formula itself.
I was emailing May Lindstrom—she of that gorgeous eponymous skin care line—about this same topic, and she had some wise words that were too good to paraphrase: “Applying lip balm a dozen times a day is a problem, not a solution. When you find yourself doing this, you’ll know that there are bigger issues to address,” she warns. “It could be your products, extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations, diet—lack of fat and hydration are major—or other factors. Let’s not cover it up. When your skin, including your lips, sends you a message, it’s time to listen.”
I was all ears. Eventually, through intensive testing and variable-elimination, I found my main problem deep in the bowels of my regular formulas: it was petrolatum, aka petroleum jelly, known to the chic counter hands in French drugstores as the chief ingredient in Aquaphor, Vaseline, ChapStick, and the highly-revered Homeoplasmine.
Look at my author bio—do I look like a person who doesn’t have at least one of these in every single pocket? And yet, it never helped. I loved the thick gloopy coverage of Aquaphor, and would sit quietly awaiting the miracle that everyone swore happened to them—instant lip perfection. Instead, I’d get these little dry, chapped panels on my lips. In the cold, they’d crack open. Obviously, the only remedy was more of the same. It went on like this for years.
I know it’s impolitic to judge somebody by where they come from, but petrolatum has a pretty bizarre origin story. It’s a byproduct of the oil-refining process, and it used to build up in strange places in oil rigs. A few enterprising and scraped-up young machinists pulled an avant la lettre YOLO and slathered it on wherever it hurt. It turned out not to kill anyone, and in fact helped heal cuts and scrapes.
It later came into wider medical use (after undergoing a more refined refining process), and today is found in products like Neosporin. It’s a sealant, mainly. It’s like the hatch door on top of a submarine, locking everything up underneath nice and tight, ready for submersion. People turn to petrolatum for protection.
But it doesn’t really provide a source of hydration (which is why it’s usually combined with other oils or emollients that do). The downside is that it can feel sort of like plastic in gel form, and can quickly turn to grease on your lips, sliding around (and usually off), leaving you again vulnerable and without moisture. And if you’re slathering it on night and day, it’s like clanging around in a medieval suit of armor without any clothes on underneath—you thought you were super-protected, but you’ll still freeze to death.
Now here comes the ass-covering, quasi-scientific caveat: I can’t know for certain that petrolatum caused my chapping. All I do know is that it never really helped. Not for me. And maybe not for you. Lord knows, if Homeoplasmine answers your prayers and all you need is one dab after you brush your teeth and you’re set with pillowy perfection all day, keep at it. Why not. But if this little ditty fails to uncannily describe your own lip life, consider a few of these more natural alternatives.
Since petrolatum is often the main ingredient in lip balms, I’ve categorized these alternatives based on the main ingredients in them. You’d be surprised how many other apt bases there are. And sooner than you think, your lips will be able to make it through a whole movie with just one swipe during the trailers.