All parts of the body are susceptible to sunburn, but some more than others—whether it’s because the sun hits the body area directly or because you didn't apply sunscreen. Your lips are a particularly vulnerable spot. Preventing sunburned lips should be a priority, not only so you avoid painful redness and swelling but because sunburned lips can raise your risk of skin cancer.
What do sunburned lips look and feel like?
If your lips get sunburned, they’ll become swollen and redder than usual. They might also feel tender to the touch, and sometimes blisters will form, similar to the way blisters can form on sunburned skin on other body areas. Everybody reacts to sunburn differently, but sunburned lips symptoms typically last around three to five days—although it could be up to 10 days in severe cases.
Health risks of sunburned lips, including lip cancer
Besides causing painful swelling and blisters, sunburned lips can also increase your risk of lip cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, which can appear on the upper lip—particularly the outer part next to the lip rather than the lip itself. However, the majority of lip cancers appear on the lower lip, and they tend to be squamous cell carcinomas—another type of skin cancer that has a greater chance of spreading than other types. The leading risk factor for lip cancer is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
How do lips get sunburned?
If you don't protect your lips with SPF products, they have a greater likelihood of get sunburned. “Many people lick their lips, so they lick the sunscreen off,” New York City dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, tells Health. “And some people don’t apply sunscreen because they have lipstick or lip gloss on and don’t want to remove it. But harmful UV rays will penetrate the product if it doesn’t contain sun protection, so a lip balm with SPF should be an essential part of your routine.”
Besides protecting them with SPF, the easiest way to prevent sunburned lips is to keep your lips out of the sun, Connecticut-based dermatologist Rhonda Q. Klein, MD, tells Health. After a lip sunburn, precancerous inflammation called actinic cheilitis (AC) can develop, and that could lead to squamous cell cancer. In the early stages, AC might just look and feel like very chapped lips. But if you notice something on your lip that feels scaly, looks like a burn, or turns white, bring it to a dermatologist's attention.
How to help sunburned lips
After a lip sunburn, take an anti-inflammatory pain reliever like ibuprofen ($19.98; Amazon.com) to help ease tenderness and swelling. Dr. Jaliman also advises using a cold compress. “It reduces the inflammation and pain,” she says. Simply rinse a soft washcloth in cold water or dip it in ice water, then hold it against your lips.
To speed healing, Dr. Jaliman loves Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($9.58; Amazon.com). The panthenol helps to retain moisture, she says, while the glycerin serves as a protective layer to prevent moisture loss. She also suggests L'Occitane Shea Butter Lip Balm Stick ($12; Amazon.com). “It’s extremely moisturizing due to its natural vitamins and fatty acids,” she says. “It also contains cinnamic acid, an organic compound known for its antioxidant and conditioning properties, making it great for lips that are irritated.”
Dr. Klein’s recommends Dr. Dan's Cortibalm ($6.04; Amazon.com) for its soothing properties, and Vanicream Lip Protectant ($6.33; Amazon.com), which both hydrates and protects from further damage. Drinking water is another important part of the healing process. “Staying hydrated will help heal the sunburn,” says Dr. Jaliman.
Finally—and crucially—avoid the sun until your lips have healed. Next time you go outside, remember to apply SPF for your lips and consider wearing a wide-brimmed hat, just to be on the safe side.
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