Lip balm anonymous

When you put it on in your sleep, you have a problem.

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Here are some of the scary things you will learn at the Lip Balm Anonymous Web site. Addict Emma S. was observed by her college roommate putting lip balm on in her sleep. Lisa M. uses lip balm an average of 108 times a day. Rachel F. keeps a tube of lip balm in the pocket of her bathrobe in case she needs a fix in the shower. Cindy R. resorted to rubbing creme rinse into her lips after finding she'd left her lip balm in her checked luggage.

Equally scary is the fact that these women failed to see that Lip Balm Anonymous is a joke, a tongue-in-cheek takeoff on Alcoholics Anonymous and its countless 12-step addiction spinoffs. It exists only on the Internet. There are no LBA meetings, no books, no bumper stickers. The self-test is basically AA's with "lip balm" substituted for "alcohol," and "coating" for "drinking." ("Do you occasionally coat heavily after a disappointment,
quarrel or rough day?" ) Nonetheless, 75 percent of the estimated 30,000 testimonies founder Kevin C. received last year were serious.

Clearly the LBA site has touched a nerve. What the site doesn't do is answer the million-dollar question: Are lip balms addictive? Is there some biological reason why using a lip balm makes you need to keep using it? Kevin C. believes the answer is yes. Having spent years never leaving home without my Vaseline, I can almost believe it.

Kevin C. -- by day a mild-mannered information specialist in Mountain View, Calif. -- has referred me to Charles Zugerman, an associate professor of dermatology at Northwestern University in Chicago. Zugerman is a consultant to the lip balm industry. While admittedly this may impart a certain bias, it also makes him one of the few medically qualified individuals with lip balm experience. I have presented Zugerman with one of the
theories put forth on the LBA site, one that seemed to make good sense: "The wax in lip balms causes the moisture receptors in your lips to send a stop signal to the moisture-releasing agents in the skin of the lips." In other words, since you're giving the lips an outside source of lubricant, they stop making their own.

"There are no 'moisture receptors' in the lips," says Zugerman flatly. Nor, he goes on to say, do the lips have moisture-releasing agents. "Lips don't have sebaceous glands." He senses my dismay. "Other than that, it's a good theory."

Another theory is that there's some ingredient that's drying out the lips, creating the need for ever more goo. Recovering balm-aholic Lisa "I'm very proud to say I'm able to go for six to eight hours without using" M. thinks it's the alcohol. Zugerman points out that most cosmetics and toiletries have some chemical formulation of alcohol or another, but that it's typically not the drying kind (ethyl alcohol). Often it's steryl alcohol, an emulsifier added to keep the ingredients from separating.

Kevin C.'s theory is that it's camphor and menthol, a duo that appears in Blistex, Carmex and other "medicated" lip balms. The two are known in the industry as "counter irritants." It's cure by distraction: Menthol and camphor create a cooling, tingling sensation that takes your mind off the burning and stinging of chapped lips. No one I spoke to -- not the FDA, not Zugerman, not Howard Maibach, author of the
Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology -- knew of any data to suggest that either substance was drying. Ditto phenol, a mild anesthetic that often turns up in lip balm ingredient lists.

Which leaves us at exfoliants. Some balms have started adding alpha hydroxy acids, which burn off the dry, dead outer layer of the chapped lip. As with AHAs in facial moisturizers, however, the companies insist that the amounts are so small they shouldn't cause drying. The original lip exfoliant is salicylic acid, found in Carmex. Carmex is the name that comes up most often in discussions of lip balm addictions. There was once an
entire section devoted to Carmex Addiction in the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup on Usenet.

Carmex was originally designed for cold sores. It speeds their disappearance by burning off the layers of dead skin on the healing blemish. It stands to reason that using it on healthy lips -- which 80 percent of Carmex buyers do -- might expose soft new lip skin to the elements before it's ready and thereby lead to chapping.

Carmex president Paul Woelbing is not surprised to learn that my call has to do with the purported addictive nature of his product. At last count, he's sent out 150 letters to people assuring them his product is not addictive. "We get letters from people who've heard it contains nicotine or that there's bits of fiberglass in it or acid that roughs up your lips and makes you keep using it."

"What about that last one?" I outline the salicylic-acid-on-healthy-lips theory.

"It's a tiny amount," he says. "Not even 1 percent."

"So why put it in if it doesn't do anything?"

Woelbing tells me what he told the 150 people who wrote to him: "If you're having trouble, we suggest trying a more neutral product, like Vaseline."

Woelbing admits to using eight or 10 times a day.

"Answer me honestly, Paul." I have in front of me the LBA self-test. "Is your lip balm use causing conflict with your spouse or family? Do you feel depressed, guilty or remorseful after you use lip balm?"

"I can stop any time I want to."

Carmex aside, why does Rene D. buy Avon Care Deeply in bulk, 15 tubes at a time? Why did Emma M. go out to a gas station at 4 a.m. to buy Chapstick after "suffering from not using the last three hours." What's behind "that gross dry feeling that drives [Tara P.] crazy until [she] can get to some lubrication"?

University of California professor of dermatology Roy Grekin suggests it may be largely a matter of climate. Rene and Emma and Tara probably live somewhere dry, and so their lips are chronically dry. Dry air pulls water from the lips. It's simple chemistry. "Two different concentrations of water will try to equalize themselves," Grekin explains. "Put a glass of water out in a dry area and next day it's empty. It's in the air. The body is like a glass of water. We're 70 percent water." One sure way to kick a lip balm habit:
Move someplace humid. "Soon as you step off the plane in Hawaii, I can guarantee you," says Grekin, "you won't need lip balm."

Alternatively, the woe-beset women of the LBA Web site may be lip lickers. Lip-licking -- yes, this is an actual dermatological phenomenon -- is one of physiology's vicious circles. Your lips feel dry so you lick them, but licking dries them out more, causing you to lick them even more. "The wet-dry-wet cycle tends to irritate the lips," Zugerman says. "It's like constantly washing your hands." Lip balms help because they contain petroleum
or wax -- oily materials that trap moisture inside the lips, making them temporarily less dehydrated.

In short, people overuse lip balms because they work. "When you put moisturizer on the lips, the lips feel better," says Zugerman. "When the lips feel better, there's a general desire to use the product more and more. When you stop using it, you're used to the feeling of having something good on there and it doesn't feel good anymore. The need is not physiological. It's psychological."

Woelbing agrees. "When people claim to be addicted to Carmex, what they are experiencing is the natural tendency to repeatedly use something which is effective and/or pleasurable," says Woelbing. "For example, I joke that I am addicted to chocolate and the TV show 'Frasier.'"

Why is it so hard to quit? Zugerman likens it to a hangnail you're used to picking at. "If you try to stop cold turkey, then all you can think about is that hangnail. It's not anything more than that." One thing is certain. As Kevin C. says himself, "In the grand scheme of things, it really isn't that big of a problem."

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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