For many years now, people have mentioned some form of lip balm addiction, usually Carmex addiction. There are valid reasons to believe lip balm is a bad idea, and Carmex in particular; furthermore, I don’t really care what you do to your own lips. But the “addiction” cycle people discuss is something of a misnomer.
Also, erm. So. I listen to this geeky wonderful podcast called Back to Work,* and in Episode 149 Merlin Mann stated that Carmex feels good when you put it on, because the active ingredient is acetylsalicylic acid, which is the same as aspirin. So you’re essentially balming your lips with aspirin. I’m here to correct that statement, and describe in too much detail what Carmex is actually made of and how it works. God I’m a pretentious asshole. Here goes!
Carmex, for the unfamiliar, is this gross terrible balm you can buy for super cheap in a white milk glass pot with a yellow painted metal lid. The old lid design (showing the old URL) is on the left; the new design is on the right. You can also get it in a tube but why would you, because why would you get it all? It sucks.
Carmex is made mostly of lanolin, otherwise known as the grease off a sheep’s back, and then a bunch of other crap including camphor, menthol, and salicylic acid.
Lanolin is the emollient agent which helps moisturize skin that has become dried or cracked usually from weather extremes. Moisturizes by coating your LIPS in a film of SHEEP SKIN GREASE. I cannot stress this part enough. Ew.
Menthol and camphor both provide that cooling, “aaah” feeling when you apply it. They create the illusion that a product is being deeply absorbed, when in fact it’s some weird aromatherapy trickery of bringing the blood closer to the skin. (Look, I’m a linguistics major, an online dating coach, and a hobbyist beauty blogger, OK? I’m no Dr. Drang. Go ask him why it makes your skin feel all cold and deeply-penetratey. Phrase it just like that. Come back and tell me how it went.)
Salicylic acid is where it gets interesting. This is somewhat similar to aspirin chemically, hence the somewhat similar names. (A Twitter pal with more chemistry knowledge than me said that aspirin is salicylic acid with an acetyl group, which is wholly different.) Despite not being a chemistry wizard, I do know that these chemicals confuse a lot of people linguistically, and they’re similar enough that people who are extremely allergic to aspirin sometimes have issues with products containing salicylic acid, and vice versa. BUT they’re not the same thing.
They’re both originally derived from a certain willow bark, though I’m pretty sure we synthesize them both now. Acetylsalicylic acid/aspirin is an analgesic we take orally, or I guess sometimes topically; salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid we usually use in skincare and beauty products to exfoliate the skin. Chemically. You know those creepy chemical peels you hear about celebrities or fancy people getting that give you face dandruff and then allegedly make you look prettier? Yeah, those are salicylic acid, but at mega-high percentages (like 30%; the most you’ll ever find in a consumer beauty product is 3-5%.) Carmex doesn’t list the percentage of salicylic acid, as I believe they are not required to do below 0.5% in the USA. But that quantity is not nominal; this stuff is strong.
Salicylic acid causes your skin to shed. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do. So why the heck is it in Carmex? A: To cut down the lifetime of cold sores by causing that skin to shed. Salicylic acid is a great cold sore and acne blemish treatment, because it forces exfoliation by making skin dry out and fall off, thus speeding up the life cycle of whatever unpleasant skin thing you’re trying to cure. (Don’t, uh, don’t go putting it willy-nilly on other types of herpes sores. Not a doctor.)
The problem most people have with Carmex is that the salicylic acid dries out more than just their cold sores, ya know? It has the effect of drying out their entire lips. So then they feel like they need more Carmex to soothe those dried out lips, thus the cycle of perceived Carmex addiction.
Carmex’s website states it like this:
SALICYLIC ACID — A mild exfoliant allows moisturizers to be better absorbed.
Sure, kinda. It’s an exfoliant, but its mildness varies from person to person, like any chemical exfoliant. The effect is also increased over time with repeated usage. And like any chemical exfoliant, it’s always going to have a certain amount of drying and shedding effect on the user, even when combined with a heavy greasy disgusting emollient like lanolin, which I’m under moral obligation to remind you is sebum from a goddamn sheep. Salicylic acid doesn’t actually help moisturizers be “absorbed” per se, especially in that you might not so desperately need said moisturizers if you weren’t applying an inherently chemical exfoliant to your delicate lip skin. I get that they need a perceived justification for what is usually an acne and cold sore drying-out skin-peeling ingredient, don’t you?
Anyway, there you have it. Carmex is not addictive, and it does not contain aspirin, but it can cause a cycle of perceived dependency because it’s designed to dry your skin out, and it tends to accomplish that task well, especially with repeated usage. If you like that menthol-cooling feeling but you don’t like the idea of chemical exfoliants or sheep grease, try using a lip balm that contains peppermint essential oil but doesn’t contain any salicylic acid or lanolin, respectively. (There are loads; poke around at your local hippie grocery.) You’re likely to suddenly realize you’re not, in fact, addicted to lip balm, and that you can stop using it whenever you choose. And you won’t be rubbing sheep grease all over your mouth like an animal, either! Yay! Everybody wins! Except for Carmex! Oh well!
*I doubt there’s much crossover between my beauty blog reading audience and my tech podcast consuming audience, but alas. I’m sticking this post here anyway, because it’s technically a beauty and skincare topic, ya know? Go visit my business site or my more techy blog if you like.