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Bingeing on balm, or hip lip service?

Associated Press
Published January 22, 2006


Kevin Crossman didn't understand his addiction until the intervention.

He was using. Using after every meal. Then, finally, a friend confronted him about his addiction to cherry ChapStick.

"We have been clean and sober 10 years, 6 months, 5 days," says Crossman, a Fremont, Calif., Web manager who, after starting a Web site for addicts, www.kevdo.com/lipbalm has mastered this deadpan routine.

It's the time of year for dry, cracked and chapped lips, which may require lip balm for a few days. For some, however, the craving for lip balm never abates. They just love the feel of soft, moist lips - even their own. They carry tins and tubes and sticks. They apply before bed and immediately upon waking up. They stash 'em around the house, at work and in their cars.

More Crossman deadpan: "We've had people who've woken up in the middle of the night and needed a fix. They cant find one, so they drive down to the 7-Eleven. That can have an impact on family and job performance."

With the recent lip-balm surge, a question as hotly debated as it is frivolous has spread across the land: Can we add lip balm to America's arsenal of addictions?

Absolutely not, says the nation's lip-balm-industrial complex, which sold $239-million worth of product in 2004 (that was a 1.7 percent increase over 2003, according to a survey by Kline & Co., a market research firm).

"That's a rumor that's been going on for decades. If it was addictive, the FDA wouldn't let us sell it," says Paul Woelbing, whose grandfather founded Carma Laboratories, makers of Carmex. This year, the Wisconsin company expects to sell 65-million jars, squeeze tubes and sticks - including 300,000 freebies for our men and women serving overseas - without the benefit of advertising. Average annual growth is about 8 percent.

Dr. Charles Zugerman, a professor of dermatology at Northwestern University and an adviser to Blistex, backs up Woelbing's argument with some science.

One common urban legend has it that "moisture sensors" in the lips get out of whack when a person applies lip balm, leading them to become dry and require still more lip balm.

Nope. Sorry. No such thing as a moisture sensor, says Zugerman. "The addiction is not physiological. You're not harming the lips. It's a psychological addiction because it feels good."

At least one prominent dermatologist disagrees.

Dr. Monte Meltzer is the chief of dermatology at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. He says lip balm often includes ingredients that cause a tingling, such as salicylic acid, phenol and menthol. Some of these are exfoliants that cause lips to peel. In turn, the lips become thinner and less able to protect against the elements. So people need to apply again, and the vicious cycle continues.

No way, say balm makers, who take the lip-balm addiction story so seriously they aggressively thrust and parry. Carmex devotes part of its Web site to "Myths" knocking down the addiction charge, as well as more far-fetched Internet legends about the product causing cancer or containing fiberglass or a "terrible acid."

Zugerman says salicylic acid, phenol and menthol are used in small concentrations of 1 percent or less and do not cause lip thinning in those amounts. Counters Meltzer: The tingling sensation is evidence of lip thinning, as less dead-skin tissue makes the lips more sensitive.

Crossman has no problem speaking truth to power, though. His Web site, he says, is "a way to raise awareness of this very important social problem."

"Not everyone becomes addicted, and certainly you can use socially, and your lips get chapped, and you use it, and they heal, and that's fine," he says. Just in case, he recommends the self-evaluation on the site.

Here are some of its questions:

Has the use of lip balm interfered with your job? Do you feel depressed, guilty, or remorseful after you use lip balm? Are you experiencing financial difficulties due to your lip balm use? Do you wish people would mind their own business about your lip balm use - stop telling you what to do?