Dry Skin Around the Mouth: Causes & Best Treatments

Dry skin around the mouth can be difficult to heal. What is the best treatment for chapped, cracked, red, rashy lips and dry skin around the mouth? The primary challenge is identifying the cause because you need to know what you’re dealing with in order to successfully treat it.

Causes of Dry Skin Around the Mouth

Dry, flaky, red, rashy skin can occur just about anywhere on your face. When it develops primarily around your mouth, at the corners of your lips, or down your chin it can be a tricky condition to identify. It can also be difficult to control.

Surprisingly, dry skin around the mouth is generally not related to having chapped lips although there are exceptions. Here are the most common causes and what you can do to get this problem under control.

Sensitivity, Allergic Reactions, or Contact Dermatitis

Sensitivity, allergic reactions or contact dermatitis can be the primary cause of dry, flaky, red, rashy skin around the mouth. These conditions are fairly common on any part of the face. Between what we eat, skin care products containing irritating ingredients, extreme heat (like spending time in saunas or steam rooms), or even kissing someone with a rough beard (or just a lot of kissing in general), the skin around the mouth comes in contact with an endless list of things that can cause unique irritation or allergic symptoms. (Sensitivity, irritation, and allergic reactions are not the same thing though they can look the same, but more about that in another article.) 

A shocking amount of skin care, lip care, and makeup products contain a range of irritating ingredients, from essential oils to fragrance (synthetic or natural), citruses, SD or denatured alcohols, and on and on. All of these ingredients can be especially problematic for certain areas of the face, like around your mouth. 

For obvious reasons, the foods you eat can easily come in contact with the skin around the mouth and cause a reaction. The most likely culprits are citrus fruits (or other highly acidic foods), dairy, shellfish, nuts, peppermint, hot peppers, and cinnamon. 

Sitting in saunas or steam rooms can cause serious inflammation. The inevitable sweating worsens the reaction because the salts from perspiration add to the irritation. 

Fluoride in toothpastes and mouthwashes may also be a cause. If you find that changing to fluoride-free dental care products improves your condition, talk to your dentist about alternatives so you are still taking great care of your teeth. 

Any of these things (or a combination of them) can be responsible for the area around your mouth becoming flaky, red, dry, and irritated when other parts of your face look normal.

If you suspect your skin reaction is due to any of the above, then the process of eliminating the potential trigger(s) is the first step in your skin care game plan. This method is the only way to discover if this is all it takes to get your skin to calm down and behave normally.

About kissing, the potential for that causing a reaction on the skin around the mouth is real. As for whether there is anything you can or want to do about it, I’ll leave that up to you (some things aren’t worth eliminating).

Perioral Dermatitis

Perioral dermatitis (PD) is afrustrating condition whose most visible symptom is dry, flaky, red skin around the mouth, but it goes beyond that. PD can also resemble acne with tiny pimples along with extreme sensitivity. This condition mostly affects women. It is not considered to be a hormonal disorder, yet no one knows why women are far more afflicted with the problem than men. 

PD is often misdiagnosed as rosacea, but rosacea would only be a possibility if you were also experiencing blushing and redness over the cheek and nose area. When the problem is just around your mouth it’s unlikely to be rosacea, though sometimes both conditions can be present at the same time. 

PD is thought to be primarily caused by a chronic use of topical cortisone creams (chronic meaning regular, daily use, not intermittent, occasional spot applications) but all the things that can trigger contact dermatitis mentioned above apply here, too. 

There has been some discussion in the medical world that perioral dermatitis can occur when the skin’s microbiome is out of balance (the healthy balance between bacteria and other microbes on your skin). While the theory is logical, there is no research showing it to be true for PD. But even if an out-of-balance microbiome was the issue, identifying which bacteria are out of balance has practical limitations. That’s because everyone’s skin has trillions of microbes living on it to consider.

Just like for contact dermatitis, the best way to start treating PD is to eliminate the substances or behaviors that might be triggering your problem. I’ve written another article with more details and solutions for Perioral dermatitis HERE.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis (SD) is the technical name for dandruff, which can affect more than just the scalp. For the face, it usually looks like patches of dry, flaking or peeling, crusted skin, often accompanied by excess oil and itching. The areas of the face where SD shows up typically include eyebrows, corners of the nose, eyelids, ears, and occasionally around the mouth. SD on facial skin can also look red and inflamed which is not usually the case for common dandruff on the scalp.

It isn’t known why some people get SD and it doesn’t seem to be related to certain foods, climate, or hormones. It has been associated with the prevalence of a fungus called Malasseziaon skin. However, many people have the same amount of this fungi on their skin but don’t have SD. Similarly, SD has also been associated with oily skin but there are lots of people with dry skin who get SD so that doesn’t help much, either. 

However, whether Malasseziais the culprit or not, antifungal medications have been shown to be exceptionally helpful for SD. They’re even more effective when used intermittently with a topical cortisone (you never want to use topical cortisone on a regular basis but it can be just what skin needs to maintain results!). Treating SD can be as easy as going to the drugstore and buying an anti-fungal medication such as Clotrimazole Cream, Miconazole Cream, or Terbafine Cream) and applying it over the problem areas twice a day and then every three or four days applying an over the counter cortisone cream at the same time. There is also research showing salicylic acid (BHA) and benzoyl peroxide can be helpful for maintenance.  

There are a few studies showing tea tree oil (Melaleuca oil), honey, and cinnamic acid which all have anti-microbial properties, may be helpful for treating SD. However there are problems with tea tree oil and cinnamic acid in terms of quality control, the amount needed, and the potential for the irritation they can cause when used on a regular basis. 

Using the appropriate treatment products along with the best skin care routine can significantly improve matters.

One more important point: Seborrheic dermatitis or SD is not the same thing as Perioral Dermatitis or PD. PD is typically associated with tiny pimple-like eruptions and diffuse redness specifically around the mouth and chin. SD is usually clustered in small areas of the face with patches of somewhat thick, crusty, peeling skin along with redness that rarely occurs around the mouth. PD rarely responds to anti-fungal medications.

Cold Weather and Lip Licking – Chapped Lips

Changes in weather, such as very cold temperatures and dry or windy conditions can cause red, dry, and flaky skin and lips. Lip licking is an automatic attempt to keep lips moist, but it just ends up making matters worse because saliva is drying, not moisturizing. 

Another thing causing worse dry skin around the mouth is lip balms containing irritating ingredients or only thick waxes that lack what is needed to keep lips moist and protected. The wax coating some of these balms provide might feel good initially but end up just making you endlessly reapply them yet your lips never get better.

Make sure you are using an emollient, nourishing lip balm, gloss or lipstick without any irritating ingredients (especially essential oils) during the day. It is incredibly important to take care of your lips at night too. Do not leave your lips naked at night. Wear an emollient, thick lip balm at night, being sure it contains no irritants whatsoever. You can also apply the balm to dry and flaky areas around the mouth. The only difference between daytime lip care products versus night, is the daytime version needs to contain sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater. Sun damage damages and ages the lips as much as it does facial skin.

The Best Skin Care Products to Help Heal Dry Skin Around the Mouth

Regardless of what is causing the dry skin around your mouth and the prescription or over the counter products you may need to use, using the best skin care products is critical. Research has made it abundantly clear that when skin’s barrier is weakened or damaged in any way, everything gets worse. And I mean everything, from wrinkles to acne and myriad other skin problems including seborrheic dermatitis, perioral dermatitis, and weather-related dry skin around the mouth. Protecting and restoring your skin’s barrier every day is one of the fundamental goals of great skin care. 

What damages your skin’s barrier is well known—anything that inflames or irritates your skin is hell on your skin. Unprotected sun exposure and unprotected exposure to pollution is at the top of the list. Running a close second are skin care products and devices that irritate skin. When you stop using bad skin care products and skin abrading devices, it can change your skin for the better overnight! 

Taking gentle care of your skin and using products loaded with antioxidants to protect from environmental damage; skin-replenishing ingredients to give skin back what it can create for itself due to sun damage, age, and skin health; and skin-repairing ingredients to rebuild and generate healthy young skin cells.

Once you’ve determined what is happening to the skin around your mouth, what might be causing it, which treatments can resolve the condition, and start using a brilliant gentle skin care routine every day, I know you will have something to smile about! 

References* used for this article:

American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, February 2018, pages 103-117.

International Journal of Molecular Science, January 2018.  

Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, January 2015, pages 42-55.

Acta Clinica Croatica, 2015, volume 53, pages 179-184.  

Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, May 2014, pages 392-398.

Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, May 2014, pages 15-8. 

American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, April 2014, pages 101-113. 

Dental Clinics of North America, April 2014, pages 401-435. 

International Journal of Dermatology, July 2013, pages 784–790. 

Clinical Dermatology, July-August 2013, pages 343-351. 

Journal of Clinical Aesthetic Dermatology, August 2011, pages 20-30. 

British Journal of Dermatology, June 2004, 1136-1141. 

American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, December 2004, pages 417-422. 

*Free access is available for some of the above published research but not for all. Many scientific journals and/or publications I use require subscriptions or I have to purchase the individual study. Due to copyright laws and terms of service agreements I cannot share access to the journals or studies that require purchase.

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