Are your lips kiss-worthy? The mirror has spoken. And it isn't good news. Lips that felt dry yesterday are looking chapped and flaky now. The outer edges burn a bit, and there's a small pink patch. And what's that? A tiny, painful crack at the right corner of the mouth! Eeek, what am I in for?

Dry, red, cracked, split, bleeding, peeling, tender, sensitive, painful. Lips can get into all these troubles. The pain may last a while and contact with food and drink (or a passionate partner) may set you off screaming. Before you self-medicate, it's sensible to know why you've been singled out for suffering.

The main agent for cracked lips seems to be the weather. Our lips do not produce a lot of natural oils and exposure to sun, cold, wind and dry air reduces what little there is, and lips lose their capacity to retain moisture. Feel like licking them madly? Don't. Licking chapped lips makes you feel better only for a short time. Once the saliva evaporates, the condition gets worse. Saliva has digestive enzymes that “eat” the skin on the lips. Then bacteria takes over, causing itching and irritation.

Lips go sandy also because of spicy food, allergy to lipstick dyes and other cosmetic products, infections, drugs, dehydration, Kawasaki disease, Macrocytosis, Riboflavin deficiency, Sjogren's syndrome (inflammation of tear/saliva glands), frequent use of soaps and other chemicals, vitamin deficiency and a history of skin disorder. All smokers go lip-licking and so do lip biters. Ill-fitting dentures could turn on a bout of lip cracking. If you are on a poor diet, expect the lips to protest by chapping. Fungus can cause the corners of your mouth to become red, chapped or cracked.

A common problem

“Chapping is common to all, even babies,” says Dr. K. R. Radha, skin specialist. “Milk cream is an ideal antidote. Spread it evenly and watch baby slurp it happily. Smear a bit of butter or ghee. Adults, of course, will prefer a lipstick with an inbuilt moisturiser or cosmetic lip salve. Cracks at the corners of the mouth may appear because of a condition called angular stomatitis. Get it treated by a doctor. As in all aspects of health, green/orange veggies and fruits are your best bets for healthy lips. If kids resist, sneak them into the diet in grilled sandwiches, soups, pulao, pizza and noodles. Get yourself Vitamin B complex supplements.” If there's constant bleeding (no, it is not called a Dracula syndrome), consult a doctor. Suspicion here will fall on diabetes or fungus.

Dr. Madhu, who specialises in surgical restoration of beauty, has a theory. Muscles retain their tone if they are exercised (and lips are muscle), so keep the mouth active. “Talk a lot,” he said, giving medical clearance for gabbing, “and chew a lot to keep lips glowing. Carry a tube of good lip balm and apply it periodically. Patients put on ventilators suffer parched lips. Moisturising for them is done with saliva wipes, vaseline.” Lips peel when you're cocooned all day in AC-ed rooms, or in the canned air of long flights, he said. Ageing and fat loss from dieting or illness can cause loss of consistency of lip tone. Correction is done by injecting gel or your own fat. That is very good news.

Veterans who've battled and won chapping have tried these: massage dry lips with a dollop of petroleum jelly, then rub it off with a warm, damp facecloth. The flakes come off neatly. Or apply clear castor oil. Crack open a Vitamin E gel capsule and rub the gel on your lips. Make sure your lip ointment is alcohol free.

Put yourself on a regimen of lip care. In lip-unfriendly weather, avoid flavoured toothpaste. Moisturise and protect your parched, peeling lips well to prevent infection. Apply a natural balm with an SPF of 15 over a film of castor oil. Leave it on for a few minutes. Drink lots of water (8-10 glasses daily). Hydrate lips with a cool, saltwater-soaked cloth a couple of times daily. Drink vitamin-rich smoothies with carrot, spinach and tomato juice, wheat germ oil and nutritional yeast. Visit a dermatologist. Choose what works for you. And make sure your lips remain kissable.

Tips for lips

* Wash corners of mouth well after eating.

* After very spicy food, suck on ice cubes. It's pain relief.

* Soak rose petals in raw milk, make a paste and spread it on the lips.

* Rub a slice of cucumber, raw aloe vera pulp or neem leaf paste.

* Mix a teaspoon of glycerine and drops of honey. Apply it.

* Rose water is good too.

Keywords: dry lips