The best lip balms have an essential purpose: to protect and soothe delicate skin that is otherwise left exposed to the elements. For some, a trusted balm serves as an entry point to the larger world of beauty, paving a smoother way for lipstick. Other versions reliably tap into middle-school nostalgia, with kid-friendly flavors like Dr. Pepper, cotton candy, and bubble gum.
But a category as universal as lip balm can’t help but evolve as we do—and the booming self-care market means that many of today’s formulas offer sophisticated benefits, including skin-savvy peptides and even immediate plumping. That emphasis on formulation has outsize importance: Because the skin on the lips lacks a stratum corneum—the outermost protective layer found elsewhere on skin—it’s particularly vulnerable to damage. Without that same moisture barrier, says New York City dermatologist David Kim, MD, “our lips get dry and chapped quite easily from lipstick, UV rays, food, beverages, pollutants, and allergens. So when it comes to a good lip balm, it’s all about protection and hydration.”
To make up for that missing stratum corneum, Kim recommends nourishing emollients paired with waxier ingredients, such as shea butter, beeswax, lanolin, petrolatum, and botanical oils. “These are very effective at protecting the lips from the environment and mechanical damage, and provide an optimal environment for wound healing so the lips can repair themselves,” he says.
Contrary to the myth about becoming “addicted” to lip balm, there’s little to no downside to regular use. (The proper amount being roughly three times a day, per Kim.) Whenever lips seem prone to becoming chapped between applications, it’s likely due to external factors—cold winter climates or habits like biting or peeling lips—not a result of the balm formulation itself.
The breadth of options means there’s a lip balm for every person and purpose. Tinted iterations can provide a “wash of hydrated color,” says makeup artist Mary Phillips, who tends to the faces of Jennifer Lopez, Hailey Bieber, and practically the entire Kardashian-Jenner clan. Clear balms, too, can be helpful as a base layer. “I like to prep the lips with balm in the beginning of glam to make sure that the lips have time to absorb the hydration and soften,” Phillips says. Next, she tissues off any excess balm before applying lip liner and lipstick, as it could lead to feathering around the mouth. (She’ll let it remain when applying gloss. “It’s more sheer and less precise,” she explains.) Balm can also provide a finishing touch. “I love the look of a lip liner that matches your own natural lip tone, layered with a balm,” says Phillips, who is a particular fan of La Mer’s formula.
Finding a trusted favorite can make all the difference in keeping lips healthy. “I avoid formulas that are too sticky or waxy,” says Kelsey Deenihan, makeup artist to the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Hilary Duff. “It should feel comfortable on the lips, while being super-hydrating.” Indeed, her kit is never without it. “Prepping the lips is just as important as prepping the skin for a flawless makeup application,” she says. With that in mind, consider these balms that go above and beyond.