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.
Aloe Butter: HydraMe Lipz
While it's possibly the least-trustable product name I’ve come across—it sounds like a command belted out to a spa technician by the definitely-not-Donatella character in "Zoolander 2"—this is the best lip balm for the price (and a stand-out in any category). Coverage feels thin and light (read: zero gloopiness), yet it really quenches, and sticks around longer than you'd expect. Plus it's so cheap, it’s the kind of lip balm you can just leave in a coat pocket and be happy to see whenever you run into each other.
HydraMe Lipz, $2.80; at Amazon
Courtesy of Amazon
Argan Oil: ACURE Organics Moroccan Argan Oil
Who needs a dedicated “lip oil” when you can have an all-over-everything oil. OK, so maybe this isn’t the best one to apply in a subway, but it makes for a killer night treatment (as does argan oil pretty much anywhere on your face).
ACURE Organics Moroccan Argan Oil, $12.99; at Birchbox
Courtesy of Birchbox
Beeswax: Savannah Bee Company Lip Balm in Tupelo Honey
A great sealant suit-of-armor for your lips that also has built-in cashmere lining, this balm offers protection from cold and wind, while moisturizing the delicate skin underneath with shea butter and natural oils. Pro tip: You can layer it on top of another, slicker balm to seal everything in.
Savannah Bee Company Lip Balm in Tupelo Honey, $2.99; at Mast General Store
Courtesy of Mast General Store
Cocoa Butter: Cococare 100% Cocoa Butter The Yellow Stick
A classic for a reason—reason being that this balm is moisture incarnate, and it’s usually about a dollar. So the stick isn’t always pocket-size, and the packaging doesn’t exactly leave you breathless. Whatever. This stuff was around before the whole natural craze took off, and it deserves your respect. Your lips will thank you.
Cococare 100% Cocoa Butter The Yellow Stick, $1.39; at Walmart
Courtesy of Walmart
Coconut Oil: Drunk Elephant Lippe Lip Conditioner
A sweet little chubby stick in a formula that can be dialed up or down, depending on your needs. A quick swipe allays problems throughout the day, or you could dig a little extra out with a clean pinky at night for a moisturizing super soak while you sleep. It’s the only one of this bunch with fruit peptides, putatively for anti-aging benefits, and offers some non-petrolatum protection from the elements. Win.
Drunk Elephant Lippe Lip Conditioner, $22; at Sephora
Courtesy of Sephora
Coconut Oil: Herbivore Botanicals Coco Rose Lip Conditioner
A glamorous experience through and through—even the box it comes in has this silky-matte texture to it that feels all plump and smooth to the touch, without being glossy or slick. Fittingly, the balm itself follows suit. It smells like the most delicate roses, and melts on contact without sliding off. If you’re looking for an alternative to your petrolatum-heavy Rosebud Salve, this is it. If you’re looking to shed those chapped panels, Herbivore make a corresponding lip polish too, the sine qua non of lip exfoliation.
Herbivore Botanicals Coco Rose Lip Conditioner, $22; at Herbivore Botanicals
Courtesy of Herbivore Botanicals
Castor Oil: Juice Beauty USDA Organic Lip Moisturizer
Heaven on earth. Made with certified-organic ingredients, and in a thicker, gel-like formula that glides on like your favorite silk cami, all wrapped up with a little Juicy Tube nostalgia. Goes undercover as a balm, or over color as a gloss. You’re not missing anything.
Juice Beauty USDA Organic Lip Moisturizer, $15; at Juice Beauty
Courtesy of Juice Beauty
Lanolin: Dr. Lipp Original Nipple Balm for Lips
Found on the coats of sheep, lanolin is a natural emollient that’s all about protection and water-resistance. That’s what it does for the sheep, and that’s what it can do for you. It’s traditionally found in baby creams and “nipple balms,” to help out the tender spots of nursing moms (while still being totally safe for accidental consumption by the nurse-ee). This one’s pure lanolin, nothing else. Not for vegans, but that just means there’s more for the rest of us.
Dr. Lipp Original Nipple Balm for Lips, $16.50; at Birchbox
Courtesy of Birchbox
Soybean Oil: Desert Essence Lip Rescue Moisturizing
Slick, thin, and perfect for those post-meal fixes when you don’t need a super surge of moisture—you just want to pull yourself together after ducking out for dumplings. Gotcha. So, soybean oil isn't the most glamorous ingredient. Good news is it sets the stages for sexier ones, like jojoba here. Also, it’s a great way to get plant-based oils on the cheap—if you pay over $2.50 for this balm, try the next bodega.
Desert Essence Lip Rescue Moisturizing, $2.79; at Desert Essence
Courtesy of Desert Essence
Olive Oil: Tata Harper Be True Lip Conditioner
Turn here for extra plumping action. This is one of those formulas so dense with oils and conditioners that your lips can’t help but plump up and take notice. Don’t smother lipstick over it immediately—let this balm sink in and go to work (which it does especially well overnight). It’s worth it.
Tata Harper Be True Lip Conditioner, $29; at Net-A-Porter
Courtesy of Net-a-Porter
Shea Butter: Alaffia Shea Butter Unscented
Thick, emollient, and melts like, well, butter, this product is yet another “classic for a reason.” Anywhere you put it is pretty much a good idea, and if you’re sitting around the house with clean hands, pile it on for long-lasting lip conditioning. You won’t be looking around for that re-up anytime soon.
Alaffia Shea Butter Unscented, $8.95; at Alaffia
Courtesy of Alaffia
SPF: Mountain Ocean Lip Trip SPF 15
When protection is the racket, turn to this cult classic by the same company who makes the even cultier-classic Skin Trip. This balm affords just enough SPF so you can do your out-and-about thing worry-free. If you were doing a beach weekend though (lucky), go with something featuring a higher SPF, like Kiss My Face Sport Balm SPF 30.
Mountain Ocean Lip Trip SPF 15, $5; at Kent Wang
Courtesy of Kent Wang
Color: Rituel de Filles Enchanted Lip Sheer in Rue
I’m not heartless—I’m not going to leave you without any color options. This one is the darling of the bunch. The color looks a little Monica Lewinsky in the tube, but goes on sheer, manages to be bright and demure at the same time, and gives overall Pride and Prejudice fresh-from-the-moor vibes. It’s a color that makes you double-take at yourself in the mirror, wondering if this is what natural lips look like in heaven. Layer it on over another balm if you’re feeling parched—RdF will never dry you out.
Rituel de Filles Enchanted Lip Sheer in Rue, $21; at Rituel de Filles
Courtesy of Rituel de Filles
Color: Juice Beauty Phyto Pigments Satin Lip Cream in Napa
The luxe one of the bunch. Very substantiated rumors (i.e. press releases) allege that Goop maestro Gwyneth Paltrow herself uses this line—mostly because she helped make it. And I would be a malicious liar if I said that didn’t 87 percent sell me already. Luckily, the remaining 13 percent of convincing came after a single swipe. “Satin” and “cream” are, for once, not overstatements of the formula. And the pigments gently become your lip, without staining, drying, or flaking. This color I’ve picked is a bit of a warm rose (but, like, a 0 percent grandma version) that works with any natural lip color for a little livening up while keeping it real. More colors = more life.
Juice Beauty Phyto Pigments Satin Lip Cream in Napa, $24; at Goop
Courtesy of Goop
Color: Ilia Tinted Lip Conditioner in Dizzy
Like that one friend in college, this color wants to seem scandalous, but is really pretty tame on the inside. It looks suspiciously orange in the tube, but goes on sheer, a teeny bit coral, and melds into one with your natural color. You get the glamour of a lipstick experience with the moisture of balm (and a rich one at that).
Ilia Tinted Lip Conditioner in Dizzy, $26; at Ilia Beauty
Courtesy of Ilia