Personal Health Questions: Is Chapstick Really Addictive?

Lip balms and chapsticks may protect our lips from the elements, but could these products actually become addictive?

Several years ago, a 100 year old product called Carmex became the unwitting subject of an urban legend.Sales of the lip balm were astronomical, despite a lack of traditional advertising or promotion.Inevitably, rumors began to spread about the 'real' source of Carmex's success.One unfounded allegation was that the manufacturers actually contaminated their own product with ground glass in order to perpetuate its use.Users would develop microscopic fissures in their lips, which would only be soothed by the application of more lip balm.Since the cure was no better than the disease, a vicious cycle would form- Carmex users would have to apply more lip balm for relief, but the doctored lip balm would be even more irritating.The rumors escalated to the point of claiming thousands of customers were now hopelessly addicted to Carmex.These unfounded rumors prompted the makers of Carmex to put out numerous reassurances concerning the purity of their products.By the time the rumor mill had been successfully shut down, many other producers of chapsticks and lip balms came under similar attack.

So is chapstick and lip balm really addictive?In order to answer that question, one must first understand the process of addiction.True addiction occurs when someone fills a perceived void in his or her life with a substance or activity, legal or otherwise.An alcoholic selects alcohol because it numbs senses, then the body builds up a tolerance.A drug-user faces the same situation- first a psychological need is filled and then a physical dependency begins.True addicts begin to need more and more of a product or activity as their physical dependency grows.Stopping an addiction suddenly can throw an addict's body into a self-destruct mode.This is the danger of any addiction- addicts perpetuate the problem by using the very substances that are hurting them as a cure.

In the case of chapsticks and lip balms, there's usually not a psychological component which can lead to overuse.Few people have an emotional crisis and say 'If only I had something to moisten and protect my lips, life would be so much easier.'Chapsticks and lip balms are simply not those kinds of products.An easier scenario to believe is that chapsticks and lip balms are simply too good at what they do.Users discover that these products really perform as advertised and they gain immediate relief from dry or chapped lips.If a product provides immediate and consistent relief, consumers tend to use it more often.Those who live in a region where chapped lips are common are even more motivated to use (and overuse) chapsticks and lip balms.This may be seen by outside observers as an addiction, but it's the same mentality as using skin moisturizers in the South or sunscreen in the West.Increased use of chapsticks and lip balms could simply be a regional occurrence.


But some would say there is a definite pattern of addictive behavior among certain chapstick or lip balm users.Habitual users feel a compulsion to apply and re-apply chapstick or lip balm several times throughout an average day.This behavior most likely fueled the myths concerning Carmex, Chapstick and other brands of lip protectants.Could this be the 'addiction' many people have suspected over the years?Yes and no.

Not all lip protectants are created alike.They all have certain ingredients in common- emollients to soften skin and a waxy base for waterproofing.From this point on, however, ingredient lists can change dramatically.Some products feature lanolin, which is a natural emollient derived from wool.Lanolin is usually a neutral ingredient with little negative effects on skin.Wax is also a neutral ingredient which repels water, but it also can feel a little unnatural when applied to skin.Some manufacturers also use camphor as a soothing agent- 'medicated' chapsticks often contain a form of camphor.Others may use a form of alcohol as a means of preventing the product from drying out.This is where the problem may start for certain users.

Camphor and alcohol are effective ingredients, but they also tend to dry out the skin over time. Since chapsticks and lip balm manufacturers tend to emphasize their moisturizing abilities, this can be a sticky situation.Many chapstick and lip balm formulations try to minimize this sensation of dry lips, but they're not always successful.Users apply a coat of chapstick and experience relief because the natural microfissures and cracks are filled with soothing emollients and/or medications like camphor.A waxy coating forms which repels wind and water, and the user feels protected.But a few minutes later, the alcohol or camphor begins to evaporate and the wax is absorbed into the skin.This leads to a feeling of dryness around the lips, which means a re-application of the chapstick or lip balm.For some consumers, this leads to a never-ending quest for relief.This constant re-application of chapstick or lip balm is the phenomenon others see as an addiction.It's not a classic addiction in the worst sense of the word, but it can become a very difficult habit to break if not corrected.

In order to break the habit of chapstick or lip balm overuse, you should read the list of ingredients on your preferred brand.Do you see forms of alcohol or camphor or menthol listed?These can all be considered drying agents, responsible for the sensations which lead to re-application.You may want to visit a store with a large pharmaceutical department in order to find alternative chapsticks and lip balms.Generally, the better lip protectants will be a little more expensive but they will also last longer.Look for natural ingredients and labels which promote a healthier list of ingredients.

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