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Natural Balms: Lip Lickin' Good

Catherine Monahan

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Natural Balms: Lip Lickin' Good

Natural lip balms are different. Their bright packaging and quirky marketing distinguish them from mainstream products, but ingredients you don't need a dictionary to decipher positively set them apart.

Kitchen cupboard items top the ingredients lists of natural lip balms, and for good reason—they often wind up in the stomach. "My philosophy in lip balm is: The only things that go on my lips are things I'm willing to ingest," says Sue Kastensen, founder of Sue's Amazing Lip Stuff in Westby, Wis. Kastensen's first lip balm, designed for her two young children, contained only avocado oil, beeswax and essential oils.

Nut, seed, fruit and vegetable oils, including avocado, apricot kernel or sweet almond, form the base of most natural lip balms. They do the heavy moisturizing work while beeswax, candelilla or carnauba solidify the balm and help keep it on the lips. Essential oils, such as rosemary and citrus extracts, lend flavor and scent in addition to preventing microbial growth, while vitamin E, an antioxidant, keeps the oil base fresh. Just which oils, waxes and extracts wind up in a lip balm is a matter of personality and politics—products reflect their makers.

Gabrielle Melchion, founder and president of Mad Gabs in Westbrook, Maine, swears by sweet almond oil, which she first discovered in a massage class. "I like it for its absorbability. It really mimics your body's natural moisture—it sinks in beautifully and doesn't leave a heavy coating on your lips." A beekeeping neighbor provides the beeswax, which is the second ingredient in Melchion's lip balms.

Richard Rose, founder and president of HempNut Inc., in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a proponent of all things hemp, chose, not surprisingly, to include 18 percent hemp seed oil in his Vegan Lip Balm. To please his strict vegan customers, he also replaced beeswax with plant-based candelilla wax.

Natural Mimicry
Lips are especially prone to drying, cracking and bleeding because, unlike the rest of the body, they don't produce sebum, a mix of triglycerides and waxy esters that protects and nourishes the skin. Vegetable and seed oils are the perfect substitutes.

"Olive oil, apricot kernel oil, coconut oil, wheat germ oil, safflower or corn oil—all of the nut oils are triglycerides, just as the major component of our sebum is triglycerides," says Chuck Friedman, director of scientific affairs for Burt's Bees Inc., in Durham, N.C. Such triglycerides, made up of fatty acids and glycerin, are quickly absorbed into skin cells and put to work maintaining moisture and elasticity.

In contrast, what the skin doesn't recognize, it won't absorb as well. Mainstream lip balms such as Chap Stick, Blistex and Carmex contain mainly petroleum-based ingredients, including petrolatum, paraffin and mineral oils, which feel good initially, but dry out lips in the long run. "When you put a petroleum-based product on your lips, there's virtually no nutrition there. It's like eating something that doesn't satisfy your hunger," Friedman says. "It's going to wear away. There's no true moisturizing going on."

Natural lip balms deliver the moisture sun- and wind-burnt lips need, but the few capable of heading off the damage entirely rarely say so. Kastensen, who doesn't include chemical sunscreens such as octyl methoxycinnamate and octyl salicylate in her lip balms, says her products don't need them. Avocado oil has a sun protection factor of 7, and when combined with beeswax, the SPF jumps to nearly 12, she says. The trouble is, Kastensen can't say so on her labels because neither avocado nor beeswax is an FDA-approved sunscreen.

Burt's Bees' Lifeguard's Choice lip balm line likewise doesn't flaunt its protective qualities, although it contains titanium dioxide, a chalky, white natural sunscreen that, like zinc dioxide, passes FDA muster. Calling the product a sunscreen would put it in an over-the-counter-drug category and require courting FDA approval—a time-consuming and expensive process. "We say it's for sun and wind and weather," says Burt's Bees president Roxanne Quimby. "We give the customer enough clues that it is about sun protection without actually saying this has sunscreen in it."

This simple approach—and faith in consumer intelligence—seems to be working. Natural lip balms are popular precisely because of what they are not—odd-tasting, lip-drying petroleum brews.

Catherine Monahan is a freelance writer and editor in Lafayette, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 32, 36

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 36

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 36

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