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Are your lips suddenly sore, red, cracked, and dry? Is the skin around your lips dry, scaly, and angry? Do you have blisters? If you can trace these symptoms back to trying a new lipstick, lip balm, toothpaste, food, or medication — or if you've recently had dental work done — you may be dealing with a form of contact dermatitis. 

What is Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a form of eczema that appears, simply said, as the result of touching something that doesn't agree with your skin. There are two forms:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis occurs as the result of an allergic reaction to something we come into contact with. Poison Ivy is one example of a substance that causes this reaction in all people, but certain people also develop allergic contact dermatitis after being in contact with things like latex or nickel. 
  • Irritant contact dermatitis occurs in reaction to (sometimes prolonged) contact with irritants. Both inherently irritating substances like bleach and battery acid, and substances that are normally fine to touch, such as water and soap, can lead to contact dermatitis. In the latter case, it's the amount of contact that's the issue, not the contact itself. 

The signs of contact dermatitis can appear right away, or it may take prolonged or frequent contact with a substance for symptoms to appear. While steroid creams and moisturization can help clear the problem up, the ultimate answer is to avoid (such frequent) contact with the problematic substance. 

OK, So Contact Dermatitis Can Strike The Lips, Too?

You bet! When contact dermatitis affects the lips, it's referred to as contact cheilitis. It's more common in women, probably because they are much more likely to wear lipstick, one of the most frequent causes of contact cheilitis. More than lipstick alone can lead to contact cheilitis, though. Here are some other fairly common culprits:

  • Toothpaste
  • Mouthwash 
  • Toothpicks
  • Medication
  • Food (any ingredient, including preservatives)
  • Anything that goes into your mouth, basically, and especially things your mouth and lips are in prolonged contact with. This can include the metal in a flute or harmonica you play, for instance, and latex condoms can also be to blame. 

If you see your doctor about this, they'll most likely recommend a patch test. Those people who recently started using a new toothpaste, lipstick, etc, and are confident that they have a good idea what might be causing their cheilitis can also simply remove the source of irritation and see whether the condition improves. If it does, that's further confirmation that that product was indeed the cause. These people may still want to see a doctor to identify the exact ingredient that caused the reaction, however. 

Note that not all forms of cheilitis are contact cheilitis. Some people also have chronic eczematous cheilitis because they suffer from atopic dermatitis (eczema), and not as the result of contact with a substance that causes irritation. If your lips and the skin around them have been dry, cracked, red, painful, scaly and itchy for a good while, this is a possibility in your case. 

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