As you're getting ready for a day out and about and applying your sunscreen to your face, you may find yourself wondering, "Can you sunburn your lips?" and "Can you put sunscreen on your lips?" Your caution is well-founded—the answers are yes and yes!
However, as you probably already realized from the way it looks and feels, the skin on your lips is different from the skin covering the rest of your body. Let's review the differences and discover why it's so important to protect your lips from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays.
How is Lip Skin Different?
Our lips are considered a mucosal surface, so they have different cells and structures than the surrounding skin. They're made from keratinized squamous epithelium, which are basically sheets of flattened skin cells.
Unlike the skin that covers most of our body, skin on the lips doesn't contain any sweat glands, oil glands, or hair follicles. The squamous epithelium provides protection against microbial invasion, dehydration, and other external stressors. However, due to lack of melanocytes—the skin's pigment-producing cells—it's more susceptible to sun damage than, for example, your neck or back.
A High-Risk Area
Since sunscreen doesn't taste any better than it feels in the eyes, people tend to suck in their lips and scrunch their faces when applying. Unfortunately, this means that the SPF product doesn't cover these areas. In addition, since the lower lip projects out from the face so that the fragile, unprotected skin points upward, it's more exposed to UV rays than some other parts of the body. This increases the risk of sun damage and skin cancer for that area.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is one of the most common skin cancers, second only to basal cell carcinoma. When present on the lip, it's deemed a high-risk skin cancer and needs to receive immediate attention. Sun exposure is by far the highest risk factor for developing SCC, and others include smoking and chewing tobacco; a history of inflammation from an underlying skin disease or chronic wounds that were poorly treated; and immunosuppression caused by certain medications.
As with any part of the body, getting protection from an SPF product is by far the most effective way to reduce the risk of damage to and cancer in the lips.
Can You Put Sunscreen on Your Lips?
Even those of us who are very diligent about putting sunscreen on our skin often overlook the lips, so they're nearly always exposed. Use a balm or other SPF product made specifically for the lips, and, just like the stuff you put on your face and arms every day, it should be broad-spectrum and have an SPF 30 or higher. As previously discussed, our lips lack the oil glands that keep our skin soft and moist, so they can get irritated and dry out more easily. It's important to use photoprotection that's specially formulated for the lips to minimize irritation and, most importantly, keep lips hydrated and protected.
Though we associate SPF with the warmer months, lip protection is just as important—if not even more so—in the winter when the air is harsher and drier than ever.
So whether you're packing up for the beach, hitting the slopes, or just heading out for daily errands, don't neglect your lips. But with so many options, which product should you choose?
A Derm's Pick for Your Lips
You'll find plenty of serviceable options at your local market or drugstore, but EltaMD's line of sun protection products is a cult favorite among Dermatologists, and the EltaMD Broad-Spectrum SPF 36 Lip Balm is a great one to try. It has a higher SPF than your standard lip balm as well as mineral-based ingredients, which are smooth and gentle on your mouth. Furthermore, it provides vitamins C and E, which are key antioxidants and help minimize damage as well as helping lips look younger and healthier.
Remember to apply liberally before going out and reapply every two hours as needed.