Kerri's crisis hit in the middle of a meeting. Until then, nobody knew she had a problem. "I could put some on very quickly and they wouldn’t notice," she told me. But, in reality, she was using lip balm up to 300 times per day.
Lip balm "addiction" is frequently debated in dermatology and psychology. Although it's not a clinically defined addition, there's evidence of what might cause lip balm's overuse on the skin-care side of things. It's true that certain ingredients used in some brands of lip balm can actually dry out your lips and create a cycle of dryness and application, but for some people, the physical symptoms trigger a psychological reaction that can spiral out of control. In an online community called Lip Balm Anonymous, which supports users seeking help to quit, lip balm is treated as though it were a controlled substance. The comments and message boards are filled with embarrassment, anxiety, and anger:
"I’ve been fired from my job at the call center. Every time I pick up the phone, I smear Chapstick on my face and the telephone. Struggling with this problem for all of my life has led me to accept that a day without [lip balm] could kill me. After trying to go cold turkey last week, I found myself running to a store at 2 a.m., unable to bear it any longer."
"If I don’t use it, I become extremely uncomfortable and can’t think about anything else. I make sure I always have it on me...I worry about what it would be like if there were some kind of event that...disrupts distribution and availability of goods."
"It’s so bad that I will stuff Chapstick in my bra when I don’t have pockets, so that I can have some on me at all times...I’d like to be free, but I don’t know if I can handle it."
"I remember putting it on my lips and putting the tube down. I found myself absentmindedly reaching for the tube later," she explained. "It was so bizarre. I thought, 'Wait, I just put on Chapstick multiple times in the last few minutes and that’s all I can remember.' I was suddenly aware I had this problem."
Kerri never had an issue with substance abuse. As a teenager, she avoided drugs and alcohol, but she recognized that something about her lip balm usage wasn't entirely normal: "If it became absorbed into my lips even a little bit, I would have to reapply. If I didn't, I would start licking, licking, licking my lips. I felt anxious and sick. It was all I could think about until I got some more."
Kerri kept multiple tubes with her, constantly in fear of running out. "When I put it on my lips, this orgasmic wave washed over me, but it was a shameful orgasmic feeling."
At the time, Kerri worked at an advertising agency and managed to hide the behavior from coworkers by sneaking into the bathroom or pretending to tie her shoe. One day, during a stressful client presentation, Kerri's lip balm ran out — and she panicked.
"I must have been behaving strangely," she says, recalling how she began compulsively licking her lips and chewing the inside of her mouth until it bled. A colleague noticed and asked if she needed to step out.
"There was a Duane Reade across the street. I did not quickly walk there; I raced like a competitive runner." She says she grabbed a tube of Burt's Bees and ran back to work, mashing the tube against her lips. "You know when you see a little kid put on its mom’s lipstick, and they don’t quite know how to do it? That’s what I was doing."
By the time she got back to the meeting, Kerri was calm, and the presentation continued. "Everyone was kind of staring at me," she says. "I assumed they were just concerned because I ran out." It wasn't until after the clients had left that someone told Kerri to go to the bathroom and look at herself in the mirror.
"It looked like I had stuck my face into an entire bag of cocaine," she says. "There was this white, chalky substance all over my face." She looked at the tube and realized that, in her panic, she hadn't actually purchased lip balm. She'd bought a stick of solid, white sunblock and it was smeared all over her face.
"At that point, I realized I had to admit to this."
As embarrassing as the incident was, Kerri now tells the story as a funny anecdote. As a comedy writer, she's used it as fodder for essays and storytelling. (You can hear her tell it on the Risk! podcast.) She's the first to admit that it sounds ridiculous.
While the users at Lip Balm Anonymous call this behavior an "addiction," Kerri doesn't think her Burt's Bees problem was on par with drug abuse. And, she's right; it's not the same, but it's not harmless either.
Dr. Daniel E. Mattila, M.Div., LCSW-R, a psychotherapist specializing in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, believes compulsive lip balm usage doesn't fit the addiction model, but many of its symptoms are the same: hiding, shame, desperation, overwhelming physical and mental discomfort. The significant difference is the end result. Whereas addiction is stimulation-seeking, compulsion is self-soothing.
"It's not like somebody says, 'Oh my God, I'm going to go home and just use lip balm all night, and it's going to be so great.' It’s something that’s done automatically, to reduce anxiety. "
Dr. Mattila notes that patients bring up compulsive lip balm usage more during the winter, which is why he believes there's a physical component to the issue. "But, that’s really secondary," he says. "It's a ritual and a self-soothing mechanism, just like hand-washing."
Kerri never sought professional treatment for her lip balm usage, and neither we nor Dr. Mattila are in a position to diagnose her. She now lives in Los Angeles and says the milder climate has reduced her need to reapply — but it hasn't eliminated it entirely. "I still keep five tubes in my purse and one at work, but it’s definitely not as intense as it used to be."
Her current favorite is EOS balm, a brand that prides itself on using all-natural, non-drying ingredients. Lip Balm Anonymous lists EOS as one of the lesser villains of the lip balm industry. Like all balms, EOS still falls under the realm of suspicion. "It’s not clear that this product is any less addictive," writes Lip Balm Anonymous. "Indeed, the fragrance, flavor, and unique packaging are likely to only to continue the fetishizing of lip balm by addicts."
From Dr. Mattila's perspective, any compulsive behavior deserves recognition. "People take more of a humorous approach to it. 'Oh, I'm a lip balm addict.' But, like any compulsion, it can start to interfere with life."