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That persistent pucker problem

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ask self-professed lip balm addicts about their habit, and they tend to answer sheepishly.

"I noticed I had a little problem," says John Eichel, an 18-year-old employee of Princeton Sports in Columbia. Eichel claims not to panic if he can't find his ChapStick, but it really stinks, the Highland resident says, "if your lips are all chapped and it feels like razor blades are cutting into them."

And then there's Jacqueline Bethea, the 25-year-old Chicago entrepreneur who started a Web site for buying lip balm: Lipmedic.com. "I personally revel in my addiction," she says. She believes her parents are responsible. As a girl, Bethea received a ChapStick in her Christmas stocking every year, along with an orange and a Slim Jim.

Today, "I carry at least 10 to 15 lip balms with me; my purse is just full of lip balms," she says. "I guess I'm spoiled for choice. I probably don't put the same one on twice in a day."

While some in the medical community suggest lip balm dependency can border on the obsessive, users themselves are spending millions of dollars annually on the stuff. From a plain-spun remedy for chapped lips, the balm has evolved to become a customized staple of pocket pharmacopeias everywhere and a source of avid discussion among dry-lipped connoisseurs.

Lipmedic offers more than 250 varieties of balms from 70 different labels. The balms come in pots, sticks, tins and tubes from around the world. There is vegan lip balm, Dirty Girl lip balm, Hostess Ho Ho lip balm, Wash Away Your Sins lip balm ("for liars, cheaters & wrong-doers"), and lip balms made with emu oil and hemp.

One of Lipmedic's best sellers is Smith's Rosebud Salve, produced in Woodsboro, Md., since 1892.

A 12-step approach

Emollient enthusiasts numbering 2,000 subscribe to Lipmedic's online newsletter, and glowing testimonials promote the site. A customer named Julie writes: "Lip Balms are like VERY addictive drugs I can't live without and Lipmedic is a cure for my obsession."

Bethea is surprised that she hasn't been panned by Lip Balm Anonymous (www.kevdo.com / lipbalm), which takes a humorous-yet-serious approach to the question of lip balm dependency. The site features a 12-step approach to shaking the habit, but also challenges lip balm marketing strategies, including the promotion of products that pander to impressionable kids.

To be sure, lip balm manufacturers have penetrated the market at every level, from ChapStick, which costs $1.69 a tube on Drugstore.com, to more expensive organic unguents found in exclusive boutiques.

Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, the maker of ChapStick, produced 130 million tubes of the product last year, according to company spokesman Fran Sullivan. In general, U.S. sales of lip balms totaled $268 million at the retail level in 2002, according to a Kline & Company's Cosmetics & Toiletries USA report.

Still, manufacturers take seriously urban legends that promulgate the idea that lip balm is unhealthy and perhaps even addictive.

On its Web site, the lip balm manufacturer Carmex debunks what the company calls "misconceptions," including the rumor that its product "contains a terrible acid that roughs up your lips and actually makes you need more Carmex."

The lip balm industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the product is sometimes classified as a drug as well as a cosmetic, based on its active ingredients.

"The legend that somehow we put an ingredient in there that makes your lips more chapped, so you have to go out and buy more ChapStick [qualifies as] one of those grand conspiracy theories," Sullivan says.

'Should not be needed'

Different lip balms protect the lips in different ways. Ingredients such as petrolatum, cocoa butter and beeswax seal moisture already within the lips, while glycerin and other humectants draw water to the skin.

Dermatologists say lip balm use can become habitual, if not addictive in the technical sense of the word.

"It is literally a $300 million market for a product that normally should not be needed at all," says Monte S. Meltzer, chief of dermatology at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "Lips are perfectly designed to take care of themselves."

And yet, the protracted use of lip balm is an "extraordinarily common behavior pattern," Meltzer notes.

Eichel says he's not hooked. "It's not like I'm going to go through withdrawal if I don't have my ChapStick," he says. And even though he depends on lip balm, "I don't really see it as much of a bad habit. I'd probably quit smoking before I quit using ChapStick."

Meltzer attributes the vicious cycle of lip balm use to products that contain "irritants" such as menthol or camphor. While these ingredients add a pleasant, anesthetic tingle to the lips, they also cause peeling and dryness, prompting users to lick their lips. Saliva actually "digests the lips," making them thinner and less able to contain moisture, spurring the need for more lip balm, he says.

Habit-forming?

"People are known to have become dependent on lip balms," adds Jerome Litt, a Cleveland dermatologist and author of several skin care books. "There are many lip-lickers, which itself is a habit," Litt says. "So in order to try to remedy this habit, they believe that applying a lip balm will help them."

The chronic use of lip balm isn't deleterious, according to Margaret Weiss, a dermatologist in practice with her husband, Robert, at the Maryland Laser, Skin and Vein Institute in Hunt Valley. For some of her clients, "using ChapStick or lip balm is like a nervous habit. It's certainly better than smoking or biting your cuticles or biting your fingernails. It's not a harmful stress reliever."

For those who question the wisdom of applying petroleum products to lips, Weiss says, "There is no scientific evidence of any kind that petroleum-based [products] have any kind of bad health effects at all."

The lip balm habit often starts early in life. "When you're a little girl you want to emulate your mom putting on makeup and lipstick," says Nicole Burns, an aesthetician at D.K. Salon & Co. in North Baltimore. "The first step is ChapStick, which is clear. Then you get to be a little older. At 8 or 9, I went to the Bonne Bells." She is referring to that adolescent lip balm favorite, the Bonne Bell Lip Smacker.

Today, it's DDF glossy lip therapy, SPF 15. Burns has containers in her car and purse and at home and work.

"If I was deserted on an island, it's the one thing I would have to have," she says.

How often does she reach for her lip balm? "Oh gosh, probably every half-hour, because it comes off when you drink and eat, and your lips get dry."

When and how to put on the balm

Frequent use of lip balm is generally a benign practice, most dermatologists say.

"I don't think medical intervention is necessary," says dermatologist Jerome Litt. Still, it's important to pay attention to possible side effects.

* When to use lip balm:

Consider the use of lip balm "only when your lips are excessively dry or if they peel," Litt says. "This can be a result of gum-chewing or certain foods such as spices."

* Possible side effects:

"If you are using a balm that causes burning or itching or pain, it probably means that you are allergic or sensitive to one of the active ingredients such as menthol, camphor or phenol -- or two or all of them," Litt says. "This is either a contact sensitivity or an irritation response."

A medicated lip balm that dries the lips can cause cracks or fissures "that get secondarily infected," Baltimore dermatologist Monte S. Meltzer says.

Frequent licking of dry lips can also cause cheilitis, or "inflammation of the lips," Meltzer says. "Thinning agents" found in lip balm can also lead to chapped skin around the mouth, and contact dermatitis.

Flavors and fragrances in certain lip balms may present a "greater risk of allergic reaction," Hunt Valley dermatologist Margaret Weiss says.

* What to use?

"For dry lips, particularly in the winter, when the humidity is very low, I recommend plain petroleum," Litt says. "In the summertime, I always recommend a lip balm with a sunscreen."

Keep in mind, Litt adds, that some medicated lip balms "have been used for cold sores [herpes simplex infections]. These usually have salicylic acid in them, which is very drying and can be irritating."

When using a lip balm that contains petroleum, which contains no water, be sure your lips are hydrated to seal in moisture, Weiss advises. She also cautions that those over age 40 with chronically chapped lips that don't respond to lip balm should see a dermatologist. Such persistent symptoms "can be a sign of pre-cancer skin changes."

* Is it possible to wean yourself from lip balm?

"It takes determination and a willingness to avoid the habit, much like any other habit," Litt says. "In most of the cases it's the lip-licking that is the culprit."

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