Lip remedy: the best scrubs and balms to restore dry, flaky lips

woman with dry lips and tissue in winter

It’s time for extreme lip care. The flu season is upon us. The common cold is everywhere. And we are only halfway through the winter.

If you have a severe cold, one where you find yourself constantly blowing your nose with tissues, the space between your nostrils and your upper lip is probably chafed and flaky, despite your best efforts. Of course, you know how to care for your lips under normal circumstances: lip balm at night, gloss or lipstick during the day to ensure that they stay smooth and hydrated. But times like these call for a more targeted strategy.

To begin, let’s take a brief look at skin and how it regenerates.  Skin cells renew themselves every two to three weeks, moving up from the lower level called the dermis.  During this progression through the skin layers, lipids are released into the spaces between cells.

Your skin has its own natural moisturizing factor (NMF). These lipids form a barrier to water loss and help retain the skin’s NMF. Disruption of this lipid matrix and subsequent loss of hydration can lead to dry, flaky skin.  If you have a cold or flu, the overproduction of mucus disrupts the NMF or Ph balance of your skin when it drips from your nose onto the surrounding skin.  If you are constantly wiping your nose, the friction only makes it worse.  Add cold weather and no amount of simple moisturizer will solve this problem. You need a targeted plan, one that consists of two simple steps: lip exfoliation and barrier treatments.

Why do we need to exfoliate our lips?

The dry flaky skin on your lips and between your nose and mouth must be removed before moisturizing.  These are dead skin cells that will prevent the barrier cream from working effectively.  If you apply moisturizer over these dead cells, they will only flatten and give the appearance of moisturized lips.  When the moisturizer has evaporated, however, the dry skin cells will still be there.

Lip exfoliation is not about using the body scrubs from your shower or bath or even enlisting your facial scrubs to do the job.  Lip exfoliators (and they can be used on the skin around the lips and under the nose as well) are specially formulated for the sensitive skin in the center of your face.  You simply use your baby finger and some exfoliator to gently polish the surface until the dead skin is gone.

Think you don’t need a specially formulated exfoliator for your lips?  Amazon features no fewer than 17 screens of lip exfoliators with hundreds of reviews.  Under normal circumstances you likely don’t need this product. But when the space between your nostrils and your top lip resembles the Atacama Desert, the driest, non-polar place on earth, it’s time to reconsider.  Your lips will thank you.

Lip scrubs that get high marks on AmazonExfoliating lip scrub

Beauty For Real Lip Revival Exfoliating and Hydrating Lip Scrub


Vegan coconut lip scrub

Handmade Heroes All Natural, Vegan Coconut Lip Scrub 


Exfoliating lip smoother



e.l.f. lip exfoliator

e.l.f. Lip Exfoliator, Clear 0.16 oz

Once you have used a lip exfoliator and your lips are smooth and free of dead skin, the next step is a barrier treatment.

Barrier treatments and why they are essential

As basic as this may sound—amid claims by moisturizers of their miracle properties—water is the key to attaining moisturized, plumped up looking skin.  To be effective, a moisturizer must either be effective in preserving the existing hydration in your skin or have the means to attract and enhance its hydration. 

In Just Say No to the Lizard Skin of Winter, we discuss the three types of moisturizers: occlusive agents, humectants, and emollients.  It’s the occlusive agents that skin needs in this situation: they increase moisture levels in the skin by providing a physical barrier to water loss.

The classic cosmetic occlusive agent is petrolatum, or petroleum jelly (like Vaseline). As the name suggests, barrier creams don’t let anything in. They prevent the NMF of the skin from being altered by mucus and cold air and the drying effects of tissue. They also don’t let anything out. They prevent water, which your skin needs so badly in times like these, from evaporating from the skin.

But here’s the rub: occlusive or barrier creams are greasy because their primary ingredients are typically greasy—ingredients such as petrolatum, petroleum jelly, cocoa butter, shea butter, mineral oil, lanolin, paraffin, and beeswax.  The fact is, the greasier the cream, the more effective the barrier it provides.  That’s why you should have a nighttime regimen (when you can use your really greasy barrier cream) and a daytime regimen (when you can use a barrier cream that is not as greasy and lends itself to lipstick and makeup being applied over it.)

Follow these night and daytime regimens for at least five days or until your lips and skin are soft and smooth once again.

Nighttime regimen

Nighttime is the best time to slather up and give your skin the time it needs to recover.

  1. Use your lip exfoliator to remove the dead skin cells from your nose and lip area. Use a magnifying mirror in a good light so you can see what you are doing.
  2. Once exfoliated, use your barrier cream to coat the clean skin.

The queen of all occlusive moisturizers is Aquaphor Healing Ointment.

Aquaphor Advanced Therapy Healing Ointment Skin Protectant 

Aquaphor makes a lip repair cream as well.  It is essentially the same product as their healing ointment, so you pay more per unit for the lip product. Still, some prefer the convenience of the small tubes.

Aquaphor lip repair tube

Aquaphor Lip Repair Tube

Then there is the grandmother of all occlusives, Vaseline.  For years, petroleum jelly came in one flavor: petroleum.  Now it’s available in cocoa butter, rosy lip, and crème brulée.

Vaseline lip therapy

Vaseline Lip Therapy Cocoa Butter


Lip & Body treatment balm

Paula’ s Choice Lip & Body Treatment Balm 

Daytime regimen

Your daytime regimen is a little trickier because you do not want your face to appear shiny or slathered with heavy ointments.  There are some good barrier creams that contain occlusive ingredients that will work very well and are subtle.  Your daytime regimen mirrors your nighttime regimen. The only difference is that for day you will apply a non-greasy barrier cream to the exfoliated skin.

Highly rated non-greasy barrier creams 

These creams are tasteless and are not perfumed so you can use them on your lips as well as on your face.  And, since they are not greasy, you can apply lipstick over them.

TriDerma protect & heal non-greasy barrier cream

TriDerma® Protect & Heal Non-Greasy Barrier™ Fast Healing Cream


CeraVe moisturizing cream

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream Face and Body Moisturizer

Exfoliation and barrier creams are the key to keeping your lips soft and supple when frigid air and cold and flu season strike.  Be diligent and put up the barriers–and spring will be here before you know it.

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