Why You’re Addicted to Carmex and Other Lip Balms

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Photo: L.A. NOVIA

Somewhere between chemtrails and the Illuminati lies the greatest beauty conspiracy of all time: Carmex. It’s earned its own thread on the board “Conspiracies and Secret Societies” on Unexplained-Mysteries.com, and comedian Paula Poundstone once joked that the Betty Ford Clinic contained a secret wing for Carmex addicts who just “wanted one little dip.” According to rumor, Carmex is made of formaldehyde or cut glass, engineered to make you want to use it more, and — worst of all — not actually moisturizing.

The Cut spoke to several dermatologists to debunk these notions and assess Carmex’s evilness on a scale from one to “Not today, Satan.” Below are five truths about Carmex, including what makes it and other lip balms so addictive.

1. It’s not really made of cut glass. I think I was in junior high when a friend told me this urban legend, and I know I’m not alone because it’s got over 200,000 Google results. No surprise, Carmex’s ingredient list doesn’t outright include cut glass or anything called brokenglassmethozide. When asked, dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss of Patricia Wexler Dermatology laughed and said, “This is highly doubtful. It would be off the shelf.”

2. It also doesn’t contain formaldehyde. The stuff used to preserve dead bodies doesn’t appear on the ingredient list either.

3. It does make you feel tingly. If you apply Carmex and feel tingly all over, you aren’t imagining things. It contains menthol and camphor, which produce that that tingly feeling in your lips, sort of like when you see a Michael B. Jordan body pillow. In fact, many people are allergic to both of these ingredients, which can make their lips sting slightly and feel extra-sensitive. But dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe says, “Only some people are sensitive to these effects of menthol and camphor, so many people can use the lip balm without a problem.”

4. It’s not designed to dry out your lips faster. Thanks to some user named Kingston’s Mommy (Gwen Stefani, is that you?), there’s a much-upvoted Yahoo Answer that declares that “lip balms with petroleum or mineral oil bases dry out your lips faster.” This is just plain wrong. As we’ve covered before, petroleum is actually an occlusive ingredient and seals in moisture. Dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi says, “[Petroleum] doesn’t ‘pull’ water anywhere,” and Dr. Bowe says that petroleum and mineral oil are actually two of the best, most soothing moisturizing ingredients in Carmex. While mineral oil isn’t a luxurious ingredient, using it is fine and not dangerous.

5. You’re addicted to it because you might be allergic to it. Besides the camphor and menthol, Carmex also includes several other ingredients that can cause sensitivity. The irritation creates a never-ending cycle of Carmex addiction. Dr. Bowe says, “Carmex has many irritating ingredients that can cause inflammation in the lip area in people with sensitive lips. These ingredients can cause people to feel as though they need to reapply a lip balm more frequently, so it feels like an addiction.” Here are several of these ingredients, which are also found in other lip balms and may attribute to their addictiveness:

• Beeswax: This is often contaminated with propolis, a gluey substance secreted by bees that is a building block and repairing substance for their hives. This is a growing allergy. Dr. Idriss cites a 2010 study that evaluated kids with eczema and found that the majority of them had negative reactions to propolis, making it the second-most-common allergy, after nickel.

• Lanolin: An alcohol derived from wool. If you find wool sweaters extra-itchy, your lips are probably more irritated by Carmex than most. Lanolin also cross-reacts with another ingredient in Carmex called cetyl alcohol. If you commonly get allergic skin-care reactions, you’re most likely allergic to this as well.

• Salicylic acida beta-hydroxy acid often found in acne medications. Dr. Idriss speculates that it’s in Carmex to to lightly exfoliate skin. “But it can also be an irritant. It’s not the most soothing ingredient.” Dr. Bowe adds that it can also dry out lips over time.

• Benzocaine: a topical anesthetic that Carmex says “relieves pain and itch.” But some people are allergic to this as well. “Those people will definitely experience increased redness and chapping after even just a few uses,” says Dr. Bowe.

Overall, dermatologists agree that Carmex and other lip balms that contain these ingredients aren’t killing you. Dr. Tanzi’s verdict: “It’s safe to use, but not my favorite.”

“It’s not all evil and helps a million people. But people might want to try something more pure, like vaseline,” says Dr. Idriss. Got that, gumshoes? Consider this case closed.