We go to great lengths to protect our skin from the sun, but what about our lips? As it turns out, lips are even more susceptible to sun damage than the rest of the face due to their composition, placement, and our collective pout-specific SPF negligence.
“Sunburned lips differ from sunburns on other areas of the body primarily due to the unique nature of the skin that forms the lips,” explains dermatologist Kemi Fabusiwa, MBBS. “The skin on your lips is much thinner and more delicate than the skin elsewhere on your body. They also lack melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color and offers some degree of protection against the sun's harmful UV rays.” In addition to the missing melanin, lips lack the oil and sweat glands we have in the rest of our skin. That makes dryness and chapping more likely, qualities that can easily be exacerbated by sun exposure.
Meet Our Expert
Kemi Fabusiwa, MBBS, is a dermatologist with Britain’s National Health Service.
Naana Boakye, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New Jersey.
Karen Kagha, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your pout from the sun and treat lips burnt by strong rays, all the better to keep them plump and hydrated, now and forevermore.
Signs of Sunburned Lips
Sunburned lips come with similar symptoms to more familiar sunburns, with a few notable additions. “You may notice your lips becoming red, swollen, and sensitive to touch. The burn can feel painful or itchy, and the lips may feel dry or tight,” says Dr. Fabusiwa. Post-burn, your lips may begin to flake or peel, but don’t worry — this is a natural part of the healing process. “In severe cases, you may see blisters forming on your lips, which should not be popped as this can lead to infection,” adds Dr. Fabusiwa.
How to Treat Sunburned Lips
If you’ve already burnt your lips, stay calm and focus on restoration through cooling and hydration. “A mild sunburn on the lips can be treated quickly within several days using topical ointments like aloe or hydrocortisone,” says board-certified dermatologist Naana Boakye, MD, who recommends taking an anti-inflammatory medication like aspirin as needed to reduce pain and swelling. “Using a cold spoon from the refrigerator or freezer is a quick method to provide immediate relief, as well,” she adds. Dr. Fabusiwa agrees and suggests compressing with a cold damp cloth and applying a lip balm with hyaluronic acid and other soothing ingredients to moisturize while alleviating dryness and peeling.
As for the don’ts? “Avoid picking or peeling the lips before they have healed,” advises board-certified dermatologist Karen Kagha, MD.
How to Prevent Sunburned Lips
To keep your pout protected and nourished, sunscreen is key. “Apply and reapply SPF-infused products to lips daily,” says Dr. Boakye, who recommends a minimum SPF of 25. Among the protective products preferred by experts are Supergoop’s Play Lip Balm (which boasts SPF 30, antioxidant-rich acai, and nourishing shields like shea butter, honey, and sunflower seed oil); Jack Black Intense Therapy Lip Balm; and, for those who favor physical formulas, Sun Bum’s Mineral Sunscreen Lip Balm.
“Apply SPF lip balm regularly when you're going to be outside, even on cloudy days, as UV rays can still penetrate through the clouds,” says Dr. Fabusiwa. Both dermatologists also suggest reaching for your favorite wide-brimmed hat, and prioritizing holistic hydration, the better to get ahead of external dryness.
To summarize, your lips don’t just need the same level of suncare as the rest of your complexion — they actually require some extra attention. Invest in an SPF lip balm that fits well within your makeup routine and apply (and reapply!) daily to mitigate damage and ensure that your lips age as prettily as possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take for lips to heal from sunburn?
“A mild sunburn to the lips can take up to two to 10 days to completely heal from the redness, swelling, and sensitivity,” says Dr. Boakye. “A more severe instance of a lip sunburn where the lips are blistering can take up to two weeks, given that no infection has formed.”
Can you put normal SPF on your lips?
Yes, but it may not absorb as well or be as comfortable (or cute) as an SPF-infused lip balm. If skin-centric sunscreen is all you have on hand, apply a thin layer before your regular chapstick, the better to seal in the SPF.
What should I not put on sunburned lips?
When reaching for a hydrating lip balm, “make sure it doesn't contain any ingredients like camphor, eucalyptus, or menthol, as these can actually irritate the skin," says Dr. Fabusiwa.
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