You probably don’t think twice about the ingredients in our favorite lip balms, but it turns out, you really should. That’s because a good amount of what you swipe on your lips is actually being consumed, via drinking, eating, talking, and kissing—in other words, you’re essentially eating your lip balm. Just as you look at the ingredient list on food packaging, you should also look at the ingredient list on your lip balms, especially since certain formulas have a tendency to lock in moisture better than others.
“In order for lip balm to be effective, it should have four qualities,” says David Arbuthnot, founder of the clean skincare brand Context. First, it should be able to heal any lip damage, like chapped skin. Secondly, it should soothe lips. Third, a lip balm should effectively soften your lips. Lastly, an excellent lip balm should protect your lips from free radical damage.
“As a starting point, some ingredients do naturally hydrate better than others,” says Ann-Marie Ronlund Jensen, Brand Manager of Denmark-based brand NUORI. It really depends on the ratio of each ingredient in the formula and how the different ingredients are combined and work together, says Jensen. For example, Vitamin E is a super effective antioxidant, but it’s also great at aiding the penetration and retention of other beneficial ingredients in the lips. “It, so to speak, boosts the hydrating benefits of other ingredients,” says Jensen.
Here are the seven best lip balm ingredients to soothe a dry, chapped pout.
Lanolin is a substance naturally found on the coats of sheep, which keeps their fleece protected and dry throughout the year. The lanolin is removed from the shorn wool, after their annual shear (without harm to the animal).
Pros: It’s one of nature’s great wonders. “The molecular structure of lanolin naturally most closely resembles your skin lipids than any other ingredient (natural or synthetic), making it the most compatible ingredient to use on your skin,” says Kirsten Carriol, founder of lanolin-based Lano. It’s also semi-occlusive, meaning it’s a brilliant and breathable barrier that lets lips hydrate from within. “I call it nature’s wonder moisturizer,” says Carriol. “Lanolin is the best because it mimics human oils so perfectly.”
Cons: Lanolin must first be purified before it can be used in any products and that can be a challenge because this process varies greatly between each company. Some companies can use chemicals that might be harmful to digest.
Petroleum jelly, commonly known by the most popular brand name Vaseline, was originally found coating the bottom of oil rigs in the mid-1800s. It’s composed mainly of mineral oils and paraffin wax, a chemical preservative.
Pros: It’s incredibly cost-effective, and creates a protective barrier on your skin that prevents moisture loss. It’s dermatologist-approved, too: “Simpler is often better—an extremely safe and effective lip moisturizer is 100 percent petrolatum,” says Dr. Shilesh Iyer of New York Dermatology Group.
Cons: While it may be effective in the short-term, it can have little long-term benefits to heal lips. Some also question its ability to actually hydrate lips: “Petroleum is that ingredient in a lip balm that keeps you wanting to reapply every few minutes,” says Kirsten Kjaer Weis, professional makeup artist and founder of her namesake brand Kjaer Weis. “It gives immediate moisture but then ultimately dries out the lips.”
And while most dermatologists agree it’s perfectly safe, some clean beauty experts question the toxicity levels of petroleum, especially on lips. “The top ingredients to look out for, which are toxic to the body and endocrine system are Petrolatum (AKA petroleum jelly, mineral oil)…,” says an Herbivore spokesperson.
Beeswax is created by special worker bees that secrete wax from their abdomens. They use the wax to construct combs, which they raise their young in and store pollen and honey. It’s beneficial for moisturizing because of the naturally occurring fatty acids.
Pros: “Beeswax conditions lips and acts as a protective barrier to maintain moisture,” says Marc Cornell (MC), Director of Innovation, at Englewood Lab. It’s incredibly moisturizing and is especially great for extreme hydration and dryness. “Beeswax has the capability to lock in moisture and makes one’s lips supple and soft,” says Context’s Arbuthnot.
Cons: It’s not suitable for vegans, as it comes from animals, and some question the ethicalness of the treatment of bees when mass producing beeswax.
Coconut oil is made from the fruit of coconut palm trees, either through fresh coconut meat or dried and cooked meat.
Pros: “Coconut oil is the ultimate multitasker,” says Kiana Cabell, Kopari co-founder and creative director. It’s naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, making it an intense treatment that moisturizes and heals dry, cracked lips.
It’s also naturally antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, so it can fight bacteria and has a small amont of natural SPF. Also, “coconut oil is not only an excellent moisturizer, but it promotes collagen production, repairs skin, and helps you heal faster,” says Sage Lehman, the founder of LOVE+SAGE.
Cons: For the rest of the face, coconut oil might be too rich for some skin, causing breakouts.
The superfood is extracted from the nut of the African shea tree.
Pros: It’s rich in fatty acids, as well as ultra-healing Vitamins A and E, which help to repair skin cells. It moisturizes and protects lips from environmental aggressors and contains anti-inflammatory properties to calm, soothe, and nourish lips.
Cons: It can be so thick for some skin types that it can block pores and cause acne.
This vitamin-rich oil is made from the seed of the jojoba (pronounced ho-ho-bah) plant, which is found primarily in the Southwest US and Mexico. Although we all call it an oil, it’s actually a plant wax.
Pros: It’s lightweight, soothing, and can penetrate deep to lock in long-lasting moisture.
“Jojoba is rich in vitamins and minerals and soothes irritated and chapped skin and restores the natural balance of the skin,” says LOVE+SAGE’s Lehman.
Cons: It can be irritating or cause allergic reactions for a small percentage of people that have jojoba oil allergies.
Hyaluronic is a naturally occurring substance found in our skin that acts as a cushion to lubricate our skin, joints, and tissue. It has a stunning ability to attract and hold incredible amounts of moisture. It’s commonly sourced from plants for most skincare and lip products.
Pros: “Hyaluronic spheres are a key ingredient, which swells and plumps the lips with moisture, providing long-lasting hydration, and stops them drying out throughout the day,” says the Omorovicza team. “We use it as the base oil in a number of our products as its effects are long-lasting, and help restore suppleness to skin.” It’s also non-allergenic, making it a great option for those with common allergies.
Cons: Impressively, the cons don’t really exist because hyaluronic acid naturally occurs in our bodies, so it’s safely absorbed. But, it’s best to stick to more naturally made versions when possible.
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This story was originally published in February 2018, and has since been updated with new information.