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How to Treat and Prevent Sunburned Lips

Ever spend a day outside, feeling confident about your sunscreen application, only to find yourself later with painful, sunburned lips? Same. A lip burn can cause swelling and discomfort, and like all other sunburns, it may be dangerous long after the initial symptoms have faded away. To learn more about this often overlooked area, we tapped South Texas–based board-certified dermatologist and skin-color advocate Adeline Kikam, D.O, FAAD—read on for her expert advice on how to know if you have a lip sunburn, how to treat one, and how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

In this article:

Can Lips Get Sunburned?

You already know the answer, but we’ll let Kikam take it from here. “Lips, just like any other sun-exposed area of the body, if unprotected from sun’s ultraviolet radiation long enough, can get sunburned,” says the dermatologist. But what you may not realize is that your lips may be more sensitive than other parts of the body. “Compared with the rest of your face, the lips have a lower concentration of melanin and fewer layers of skin,” which makes your pout even more susceptible to sunburns, according to Kikam.

Like sunburns on the rest of your skin, sun damage on and around the mouth can lead to further issues down the line. Lips are “a common area where people develop skin cancer on the face,” says Kikam, “and your risk of having skin cancer increases with every sunburn.” Plus, the derm notes, “Our lips are highly vascularized, meaning they have a strong network of vessels and lymphatics that skin cancer on the lips can use as conduit to spread to other areas of the body.”

Lip Sunburn Symptoms

Symptoms for a first-degree lip sunburn are fairly mild, but they can still be painful. “With a first-degree burn, lips may get really dry and cracked, with tiny blister pustules, accompanied by pain or a burning sensation, which all make talking, smiling, or even eating uncomfortable,” explains Kikam. More escalated symptoms may be signs of a second-degree burn, which can present all of those symptoms “along with peeling, swelling, larger blisters, and more intense pain to the lips,” she says.

How to Treat Sunburned Lips

1. Head indoors. 

“The first thing you want to do is get out of the sun into a cool area, then limit sun exposure while your lips heal,” says Kikam.

2. Keep cool and hydrate.

“Apply cool compresses to lips immediately following a sunburn,” the derm advises, adding that “sunburns tend to cause dehydration, so make sure you replenish fluids and cool down.”

3. Take an anti-inflammatory. 

If you can, “take an NSAID like ibuprofen to help with any pain and discomfort,” says Kikam.

4. Apply a topical. 

“You may also apply a mild topical steroid such as paraben-free hydrocortisone 1% cream (such as Cortizone-10),” says Kikam, stressing, “Just be careful not to ingest it.”

Cortizone-10 Intensive-Healing Formula

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Cortizone-10 Intensive-Healing Formula

5. Use hydrating lip products. 

“Make sure to moisturize your lips, especially at night when skin repair mostly happens,” recommends Kikam. “I recommend petrolatum-based products with ceramides to replenish a damaged moisture barrier along with lip balms containing shea butter, vitamin E, beeswax, and aloe vera. However, if your lips might be exposed to the sun again, use a moisturizing SPF lip balm instead.”  Her picks: Aquaphor Lip Repair stick as an emollient, Sun Bum CocoBalm with coconut and aloe vera to hydrate, and Avène Care for Sensitive Lips, which contains shea butter and beeswax.

Aquaphor Lip Repair Stick

Avène Care for Sensitive Lips

With proper care, the healing process can take a week or two. But in the case of a second-degree burn, the derm warns, “Do not pop the sunburned lip blisters, which serve as a natural bandage” and instead make an appointment to see your dermatologist.

The Best Ways to Prevent Sunburned Lips

Of course, the best thing is to not allow the sunburn to happen in the first place—here’s how to make that happen.

1. Stay out of the sun. 

“Limit sun exposure in general,” advises Kikam. And when you do head outdoors—even when it’s cloudy—she suggests “wearing a wide-brimmed hat that provides adequate shade to the entire face, including lips.”

2. Use a lip balm with sun protection. 

“Apply sunscreen lip products with broad spectrum SPF of 30 and above every 30 minutes to an hour, compared to every two hours like the rest of the body,” advises the derm, explaining that protection is diminished through talking, eating, drinking, etc. “One that I love and have been using is the Sun Bum Sunscreen Lip Balm SPF 30. It has aloe and vitamin E to moisturize skin while SPF filters protect from damaging UV radiation,” she says.

3. Avoid regular lip gloss. 

“Limit use of very shiny, transparent lip glosses, unless they have sun protection underneath,” advises the derm, saying they “actually attract more light penetration to lips.”

4. Wear your face mask. 

Makes sense, right? In addition to their proven protection against the spread of COVID-19, Kikam adds that “another benefit to mask wearing is having a physical protective shield against UV exposure to our midface, including the mouth.” However, if you’re fully vaccinated and ready to enjoy some unmasked time in the sun, the above protective steps should add up to sufficient sun protection.

Lindy Segal is a writer and content creator based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @lindysegal.



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