The Decider: Lip Balm

The Decider looks beyond greenwashing to help you make sustainable decisions.

A light-skinned woman wearing glasses, a grey knit hat, and a fur-lined jacket winks and purses her lips.
Photo by Fernanda Publio via Burst

It’s that special time of year when the air seems to suck the moisture out of every square inch of exposed skin. I only have to lick my lips a few times before finding myself in the vicious chapped-lip cycle. As a teenager, I swore by my little pot of Blistex. But when I started working at a health food store, it didn’t take long to find out the main ingredient of that and every other drugstore lip balm was problematic: petrolatum.

What is petrolatum, or petroleum jelly?

Petroleum jelly is a by-product of the crude oil extraction process. Workers encountered it on oil rigs in the 1800s, where the waxy substance — which they called “rod wax” — slowed machinery down. Upon removing it by hand, these workers found it helped heal their chapped skin, which led chemist Robert Cheeseborough (founder of Vaseline) to develop a distillation process that let it be marketed to the masses.

The good news? Oil isn’t being harvested specifically for the production of cosmetic petrolatum, so buying it isn’t destroying the Earth any faster than we’re currently destroying it. The bad? It’s still a by-product of the oil industry, which means it’s not eco-friendly, and it’s not sustainable.

Oil isn’t being harvested specifically for the production of petroleum jelly, but it’s still a by-product of the oil industry, which means it’s not eco-friendly.

There’s some debate as to whether or not petrolatum is harmful to humans. It’s non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog pores and cause acne; however it is occlusive, which means it acts as a seal where applied. The barrier allows chapped skin to heal more quickly, but it doesn’t actually add moisture to the skin. That’s why some people’s skin immediately chaps again once the petroleum jelly comes off.

You may see articles in green beauty blogs railing against petrolatum as an ingredient because of potential contamination issues, but the purification process it goes through in order to be approved for cosmetic use is rigorous. However, it should be noted that, according to one 2018 study, significant levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were found in personal care items in Nigeria. That doesn’t necessarily mean people in North America will find similar levels in products made here, but to say that petroleum by-products are harmless, as some popular sites have claimed, is inaccurate.

So what’s the alternative?

Alternative lip-balm ingredients — which you’ll find in indie balms as well as more natural drugstore brands like Burt’s Bees and EOS — can be divided into two categories: animal-based and plant-based.

Animal-based ingredients include beeswax, lanolin, and emu oil. Of these three, beeswax — which acts similarly to petrolatum — is the most popular. The difference is that it allows some air through. As long as you’re buying a lip balm that uses local or certified organic beeswax, it’s a good bet. Otherwise you may end up with beeswax that’s been adulterated with paraffin.

Lanolin is secreted through the skin of sheep, and has been used as a protective salve as far back as the ancient Greeks. It’s an emollient wax that protects and conditions the skin, but it can be allergenic. The Indigenous peoples of Australia have used emu oil to heal skin conditions for millennia. It’s high in vitamin E and appears to have anti-inflammatory properties, so think of it as a healing moisturizer. Because emus must be killed to make the oil, the challenge is ensuring it comes from an ethical company that uses all parts of the animal after it’s slaughtered.

Companies don’t need to disclose the source of isolated vitamin E, so unless you call, you can’t be sure whether it’s derived from sunflower oil or palm oil, or if it’s synthetic.

Plant-based ingredients include vitamin E, shea and cocoa butter, jojoba oil, and coconut oil. Of these, the hardest to get a handle on is vitamin E, which may also be listed as tocopherol, or tocopherol acetate. Companies don’t need to disclose the source of the isolated ingredient, so unless you call the lip balm company listing this ingredient, you can’t be sure whether it’s derived from sunflower oil or palm oil, or if it’s synthetic.

Palm oil is problematic because of its enormous environmental impact, both in terms of deforestation and endangered species habitat destruction. Synthetic vitamin E is often used in skin care products, and is made from petrochemical derivatives, including hydroquinone and toluene, which are known to be carcinogenic. An ethical lip balm company should have no problem disclosing their source. A spokesperson for Eco Lips, Jane Merten, told me their vitamin E came from sunflower oil.

Both shea and cocoa butter are often found in natural lip balms. It’s important to make sure companies that use them are Fair Trade Certified, or members of the Global Shea Alliance. Unfortunately, organic certification isn’t an indication of how farmers are treated or compensated. As Asparagus contributor Alia Dharssi explained in the Decider about chocolate, “cocoa production is linked to child labour, slavery, deforestation, and low wages.”

Shea trees are native to the Sahel in Africa, where the nuts are collected by 16 million women in the rural communities of 21 different countries. GSA certification ensures that shea nuts aren’t being overharvested, and that the women involved are learning sustainable business practices.

What makes both of these nut butters superior to petrolatum is their ability to form a barrier on the lips while continuing to let the skin underneath breathe. If you’re not living in the tropical regions where they grow, though, you may want to consider their carbon impact.

The ethics of coconut oil are harder to parse, because monkeys are often used in coconut harvesting.

Jojoba oil is harvested from the seeds of the jojoba plant, a shrub with wide, waxy leaves found primarily in hot, dry climates like Arizona, Peru, and Mexico. Some companies report increasing swings in seasonal temperatures have made this delicate plant more challenging to coax into flower, but it continues to be available and used as a moisturizing ingredient in many lip balms.

The ethics of coconut oil are harder to parse, because monkeys are often used in coconut harvesting, but there’s debate about whether this is abuse or just animal labour, akin to that done by sheepdogs. As with cocoa and shea, it’s preferable to go with Fair Trade Certified in order to ensure farmers and labourers are being paid and treated fairly, however not all Fair Trade certifications cover ethical animal treatment.

Tiny plastic containers, big impact

Most lip balm comes in plastic tubes that are difficult to recycle because their small size makes them incompatible with with the mechanical systems typically used in recycling operations. Since the tubes are generally single-use, that’s a lot of plastic not being recycled.

Some companies are now creating recycling initiatives themselves, though. Burt’s Bees pays the shipping for US customers to send them empty lip balm tubes, which they’ll recycle. EOS has partnered with TerraCycle both in Canada and the US in a similar program that will cover the cost for customers to ship back empty packaging to be recycled in-house.

One packaging option that’s been around far longer than plastic is the lip-balm tin. These may be more easily recyclable in municipal programs that use magnets in their sorting process (probably a good idea to check with yours). But they’re also reusable as knickknack holders, DIY sewing kits, and more.

If you’re trying to protect those lips and the planet, it’s not as simple as grabbing whatever’s next to the drugstore checkout.

Refillable lip balm companies exist, though they’re few and far between. Their products are more of an investment, but knowing your lip-balm holder can double as a cute necklace that will last as long as you get chapped lips, could ease the financial pain.

And finally, there are biodegradable cardboard lip-balm tubes out there. But according to Eco Lips’ Merten, consumers aren’t yet willing to embrace a new product that doesn’t work exactly like classic lip-balm tubes. The line Eco Lips released in cardboard tubes was discontinued recently due to low demand. However, California’s Organic Essence and Vancouver’s Plenty + Spare sell lip balms in cardboard tubes for those committed to a biodegradable MO.

If you’re trying to protect those lips and the planet, it’s unfortunately not as simple as grabbing whatever’s next to the drugstore checkout. But if you take some time squinting at ingredient lists, you should be able to find something that will scratch both itches. Or soothe them.

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