Sunburned Lips? Here’s What Doctors Say You Should Do

Sunburned lips can be painful, but may also require a trip to the doctor. Here's what an emergency room doctor says you need to know.

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Maybe you use a good lip balm with SPF…but when you’re skiing, boating or just enjoying lunch with friends on a patio, your favorite chappy might escape your grip. Sunburned lips have happened to the best of us—but, says an emergency room doctor, sunburn on the lips should be avoided. “The skin of the lips is very thin and very easily damaged especially by the UV radiation of the sun,” explains Ken Perry, MD, FACEP, an emergency department physician in Charleston, SC.

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Nadia Rizzo, ND, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, says frequently reapplying a good SPF lip balm isn’t just a quirky habit for friends to lovingly tease you about.”Lip cancer is causally related to lifetime sun exposure,” she says, “and UV radiation from the sun can accounts for approximately half of lip cancers. Many of us go to the beach prepared with topical treatments, such as aloe vera gels and creams and take caution to hide in the shade or cover our skin, but it’s less common that we think about protecting our lips,” Dr. Rizzo says.

Dr. Rizzo suggests you think of it like this: You wouldn’t put regular lotion on your skin and expect it to protect you from a sunburn, yet people put regular lip balm on their lips and expect it to yield sun protection. Another issue is people wearing sun-protective clothing and hats—but even when wearing a hat, you need to protect your lips. Here’s what to do if your lips get sunburned.

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Prevention is key

“An ounce of prevention is key,” says Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, who is dual board-certified in dermatology and dermatopathology (meaning he specializing in examining biopsies and other clinical tests to diagnose skin pathologies, such as skin cancers).

Dr. Mudgil says that even among sunscreens that contain SPF, some are better than others. “Titanium or zinc-containing sunscreen lip balms are key and work amazingly well,” Dr. Mudgil says. “There are a ton out there to choose from, but I personally like EltaMD’s UV Lip Balm.”

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What to do if you burn your lips

Sunburned lips are going to feel sensitive, and the delicate skin is going to require some extra care. “Using a generous amount of thick ointment, such as Aquaphor or Vaseline, to keep the nerve endings from being exposed to the air can be helpful,” says Beth Goldstein, MD, FAAD, a Mohs surgeon and co-founder of Modern Ritual Health, a telehealth service. “Avoid salty, spicy, acidic foods or flavorings that can aggravate the skin of the lips,” Dr. Goldstein says, “and use zinc oxide to prevent further sun damage to the lips.” (Dr. Goldstein points out that some sunscreen products should be avoided while the skin is still raw, as they may be more irritating than helpful.)

Sunburned lips can be painful, and Dr. Mudgil recommends oral ibuprofen to help. “Applying cold compresses or ice and aloe vera can help soothe the skin,” he says. Dr. Goldstein suggests popsicles to help soothe the pain. Try making your own popsicles with soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients such as green tea and honey.

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When to see a doctor for sunburned lips

If you have a history of cold sores or fever blisters, having a sunburn can trigger a severe flare up. “If you have access to antiviral medications such as valacyclovir, using it under your health care provider’s direction immediately before symptoms occur can help reduce the severity of the flare,” Dr. Goldstein says.

If the pain is severe you should see your healthcare provider who may prescribe topical numbing medications, which should be used with care because the topical numbing gets absorbed systemically and can get to toxic levels. “If there is increasing pain, swelling inside the mouth or a rash or blisters elsewhere, you should seek medical care,” Dr. Goldstein says.

“Lips can blister very much like other tissue, but given the location, it is difficult to not have them rupture which can cause a concern for infection control,” Dr. Perry says. “Blisters are actually helpful in keeping bacteria out of the wound.” He says that if your lips get very swollen, you may need to see your primary care physician or even seek medical care at an emergency department.

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Sources
  • Ken Perry, MD, FACEP, is an emergency room physician in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Journal of Chronic Diseases, "Ultraviolet radiation"
  • Nadia Rizzo, ND, a naturopathic physician in Toronto
  • Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, dual board-certified in both dermatology and dermatopathology
  • Beth Goldstein, MD, FAAD, Mohs surgeon and co-founder of Modern Ritual Health
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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer whose favorite topics are humans, technology, animals, wildlife, and the places where they intersect. She writes about health, wellness, technology, nutrition, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Her work has been published in Self, Wired, Parade, Bon Appétit, The Independent, Rachael Ray In Season, and others. She is also a Licenced Massage Therapist. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.