I Thought My Lip Biting Habit Was Harmless — Then An Expert Set Me Straight

All linked products are independently selected by our editors. If you purchase any of these products, we may earn a commission.
Photo: Getty Images.
From interrupting mid-conversation to haphazardly stacking the dishwasher, I’ve picked up some annoying habits over the years. The worst by far, though? Biting my lips. I do it at my desk, on the tube and even when I’m drifting off to sleep. Recently, it has become so excessive that an angry red scar has crept across my entire top lip. 
To the uninitiated, biting your lips to the point of injury may sound incomprehensible but I know I’m not the only one. On TikTok, the phrase “lip biting problem” has amassed 102.7 million views and climbing, while “how to stop biting your lips” isn’t far behind. There, chronic lip biters post honest videos about their triggers and dermatologists serve up tips on how to put the compulsion to bed. It isn’t just social media, though. Google search for the latter TikTok query also spiked last month as it seems many of us are exasperated by the multiple — and often painful — side effects of lip biting. But what exactly causes it? And once you start, is it ever possible to stop?

What is lip biting and what are the causes?

Lip biting — referred to professionally as “dermatophagia” — is a repetitive behaviour that comprises chewing or biting down on the lips, explains Dr Kaywaan Khan, a private GP and aesthetics practitioner at Harley Street clinic, Hannah London. While the word is actually most commonly used to describe biting the skin around the edge of the fingers, the impact that it has on lips isn’t to be underestimated (but more on that later).
Frustratingly, the cause of lip biting isn’t straightforward: “Lip biting often stems from stress or anxiety,” says Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist and founder of Self London, who adds that it serves as a coping mechanism for many. Dr Khan says that in some cases, lip biting can be linked to certain medical conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dermatillomania, aka skin picking disorder. A lot of the time, lip biting and skin picking coexist — especially if the skin on your lips is dry and flaky — further exacerbating the issue. Dr Khan adds that “misaligned” teeth or other dental problems can also sometimes lead to lip biting as a result of an uncomfortable bite pattern. Other times, lip biting can be an entirely unconscious behaviour, for instance, when you’re deep in thought. 
A quick whip round my editor friends proves that you can be obsessed with beauty and skincare and still struggle to get a handle on lip biting. Beauty journalist Humeara Mohamed isn’t quite sure what triggers the uncomfortable habit, but she often catches herself doing it: “Stress has to be a trigger,” she shares. Beauty, fashion and lifestyle journalist Mollie Davies has OCD as well as endometriosis (a painful and debilitating condition resulting from small growths outside of the uterus) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), often severe emotional distress during the luteal phase of a cycle, which spans ovulation through to bleeding. “When my stomach and mood are bad, my whole immune system feels like it takes a beating and my skin changes,” says Davies. “During an endometriosis flare-up specifically, my skin becomes dry and chapped, which affects my lips. I’ll notice lip lines more and the edges can get cracked. Once I see a little piece of dry skin, I start a whole cycle of nibbling and peeling.” 
From an expert point of view, biting the lips may provide temporary relief from tension or emotional distress, says Dr Khan, and for some, successfully biting away dry skin feels oddly satisfying. In fact, it’s a catch 22: “[Lip biting and skin picking] can also cause pain or discomfort, which encourages the body to release endorphins for pain relief,” says Dr Khan. “These endorphins can provide a temporary sense of relief or pleasure, reinforcing the behaviour.”

What are the side effects of lip biting?

Lip biting may seem like a harmless habit, but the long term impact it can have on lips and the surrounding skin is very real. Teeth are undeniably strong and the delicate skin on your lips is no match. Biting essentially causes repetitive trauma to the skin, says Dr Mahto, particularly if you often make your lips bleed. Said trauma can lead to tissue damage and scarring over time and make the lips more susceptible to infections, adds Dr Mahto.
Constant lip biting is also likely to change the texture of your lips over time, explains Dr Khan: “Lip biting can worsen dry lips which are already chapped, as it removes the protective top layer of skin [the skin barrier] and exposes the delicate lip tissue to environmental factors,” he says. Think cold air and damaging UV rays. “Windy conditions can also cause moisture to evaporate from the lips quicker, which can make lips more vulnerable to cracking and further irritation,” says Dr Khan. In short, this kickstarts a vicious cycle where dry lips lead to more lip biting, making dryness worse.

How do you stop lip biting?

The first step to combating lip biting is awareness, but stopping entirely is far easier said than done, especially when you consider that for many, it’s a deeply ingrained habit. Dr Khan advises identifying your triggers and asking yourself: “Am I lip biting because I feel bored, anxious, stressed or otherwise?” If your trigger is emotional, you might benefit from therapy; Dr Khan suggests working with a qualified therapist to unravel the underlying causes and to help develop coping mechanisms, replacing lip biting with “healthier” habits. “This could be using a stress ball, sucking on a mint, or chewing gum to provide oral stimulation to replace lip biting,” he offers.
Dr Mahto’s clinic, Self London, has clinical psychologist and psychodermatologist Dr Eleanor Chatburn on hand to lend emotional support to those affected by skin conditions and compulsions such as lip biting. This, says Dr Mahto, addresses the psychological as well as the obvious physical aspects of the habit. “Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) like awareness training, habit reversal and stress management can also definitely help to address triggers and modify behaviour of patients who present with [lip biting],” adds Dr Mahto. If you choose to go down this avenue, Dr Khan drives home the importance of choosing a licensed professional. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy register is a good place to start. 

What are the best lip products and treatments to prevent lip biting? 

Aside from pinpointing your emotional triggers, there are some cosmetic treatments and techniques you could try to alleviate lip biting. If the habit has resulted in scars, Dr Khan suggests looking into microneedling with a qualified practitioner — a skincare treatment that creates micro-punctures in the skin to stimulate collagen production and promote healing. Hyaluronic acid-based lip injectables can also be a useful treatment option to lift the skin and even out the lip texture, offers Dr Khan.
Say you’d rather avoid needles; it’s likely you already rely on an abundance of lip balms to alleviate dry, flaky lips — but be mindful of the ingredients. “Anything that draws more attention to the lips is best avoided if [lip biting] is something you suffer from,” advises Dr Mahto. Ingredients like menthol (a chemical naturally found in peppermint) and camphor (a fragranced oil derived from wood) can cause a tingling sensation and drive awareness of your lips, prompting you to bite and pick at the skin more, says Dr Mahto. 
Other common lip balm ingredients like fragrances, essential oils, lidocaine (an ingredient with anaesthetic properties) and beeswax (often labelled as “propolis”) can cause lip irritation and allergies, potentially making dryness worse. “A basic moisturising lip balm will suffice,” says Dr Mahto, who likes lanolin-based Dr. Lipp Original Nipple Balm For Lips, £12. Certainly, the more moisturised your lips are, the less likely you are to notice dry skin and start to bite or pick. For beauty journalist Davies, the only products that soothe and prevent the sore, flaky skin on her lips are Eucerin Dry Skin Intensive Acute Lip Balm, £8, and Blistex MedPlus, £2.49. Personally, E45 Lips & Dry Skin Balm, £8.99 and CeraVe Advanced Repair Ointment, £11, work a treat on my sore, parched lips when I’ve bitten them excessively. 
If you want to protect your lips further, Dr Kahn suggests looking for a lip balm that boasts a minimum of SPF 30, as sun damage can cause and aggravate lip dryness, encouraging biting or picking. R29 rates Ultrasun Ultralip SPF30, £8, Hello Sunday The One For Your Lips Fragrance-Free Lip Balm SPF 50, £7, and Malin + Goetz SPF 30 Lip Balm, £15
Lastly — and this may sound basic — make sure to drink plenty of water to ensure dehydration does not lead to the exhausting cycle of dry lips and then lip biting, concludes Dr Khan. 
If you are struggling with OCD, you can contact charities OCD Action, OCD UK or No Panic.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series