Joan McKenzie Wilburn, a 20-year-old from Dallas, wore Aquaphor, a petroleum-based product, during her spring break trip to Mexico, continuously applying it to her lips throughout the entire day. It wasn’t until the next morning that she found out what a lip sunburn was.
Her lips were swollen and uncomfortable, and then, when they began to blister, the pain really set in. “I found out I had sun poisoning,” Wilburn told BuzzFeed News.
Sun poisoning is a sunburn so extreme it leads to dehydration, blisters, pain, swelling, and sometimes fever and chills.
“I woke up every morning for four days and had to ice my lips, take Benadryl, and drink lots of fluid for the swelling to go down only a little bit. My lips peeled for over a week and blistered and bled, and I had to use steroid cream on my lips for it to heal quicker.”
Wilburn said it was “extremely embarrassing” to walk around looking like she had botched lip filler or a cosmetic procedure.
Although Wilburn said it might have felt like she had “free lip injections,” she would not recommend that people wear Aquaphor in the sun.
Because the internet is going to internet, however, some people on the social platform are already posting themselves applying Aquaphor in hopes of achieving a full-lipped pout without lip plumpers or injections.
The search “sunburn Aquaphor” has 2.1 billion views on TikTok, with some users commenting about how they can’t wait to try the trend for themselves on their next trip to the beach.
“This is my sign to wear aquaphor in the sun ☝️,” one user commented on the post. “Thanks I’ll be trying,” another said.
However, dermatologists are warning users of the risks of sun damage. A spokesperson for Aquaphor also told BuzzFeed News about the brand’s thoughts on the TikTok trend.
“We only encourage usage of Aquaphor as directed on the label and for its main purpose, which is to hydrate lips and provide long-lasting moisture,” said Leslie Kickham, external communications leader at Beiersdorf, the company that owns Aquaphor. “People who are following TikTok trends and applying Aquaphor in unapproved ways should not do so.”
The company recommends that people use a specific product it makes, Aquaphor Lip Protectant + Sunscreen, if they are going to be in the sun.
Here’s what to know about Aquaphor, sunburns, and why you shouldn’t apply this on purpose to plump up your lips in the sun.
Why do some products cause lip sunburns?
First up, we need to point out that there’s nothing special about Aquaphor in this case. Applying any petroleum-based product, like Vaseline, to your lips before spending time in the sun can lead to sunburn because the products don’t contain SPF, which protects against UV rays.
Although petroleum and oil products are great for locking in moisture on dry and cracking lips — dermatologists warned against using the products in the sun, and instead, told us to opt for an SPF lip balm. On other parts of the body that produce sweat, petroleum- or oil-based products can block pores and trap sweat.
“It looks like some people are purposely applying petroleum-based products on their lips to make them bigger. This is incredibly unwise,” said Ranella Hirsch, a board-certified dermatologist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Since a key component of this hack is to cause a sunburn, you put yourself in a direct line for hyperpigmentation, pain, infection, and skin cancer.”
Lips are a combination of muscle and connective tissue and are automatically positioned to be exposed to the sun just like the rest of your face. As a result, a sunburn can manifest as the immune system tries to protect the body from UV ray–induced damage.
Since the lips are a different type of tissue (mucosal tissue, which is a soft tissue), Dr. Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, a fellow at the American Academy of Dermatology, told BuzzFeed News, there are specific risks of using petroleum- and oil-based products on thinner and more sensitive skin.
“Lipcare products with SPF protect against sun damage, but products with petroleum like Aquaphor or Vaseline put you at risk for a sunburn, as they do not have photoprotection or SPF,” Houshmand said. “This is why you are seeing the swelling, redness, and enlargement of the lips and even blister formation with excessive sun exposure. Similar to applying baby oil to the skin and getting a sunburn.”
Compared to other parts of the body that typically have 15 to 16 layers of skin, lips are made up of three to four layers, one of the thinnest layers on the body. That means that our lips don’t have a layer of protection like the rest of our skin does.
The 10 to 30 upper layers of skin are called the stratum corneum, where cells are a bit tougher and ready to fight against the sun’s radiation. Additionally, sebaceous glands, or sweat glands, aren’t found on the lips like they are in other areas of the body. Sweat controls body temperature and serves as the first layer of defense from environmental factors.
As a result, chronic sun exposure can cause a precancerous lesion, actinic cheilitis, also known as sailor’s lip, which often forms on the lower lip. The lesion can develop into squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer.
Although the majority of squamous cell carcinomas are successfully treated, lesions can become disfiguring, dangerous, and deadly.
Squamous cell carcinomas typically are not as likely to spread as some types of skin cancers, but when they form on the lips they are 11 times more likely to metastasize than those that develop elsewhere on the body. (There is also a risk of basal cell carcinoma appearing on the top lip.)
With an estimated 1.8 million cases of squamous cell carcinoma diagnosed each year in the US — and a 200% increase in the past three decades — it’s important to practice sun safety, including applying SPF, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding tanning.
Symptoms of sunburned lips
Swelling, redness, peeling, and blistering are all signs of a lip sunburn, Houshmand said.
“The risks are having a decreased skin barrier meaning dryness irritation, dehydrated lips, and excessive temperature extremes,” Houshmand said. “Applying petrolatum and going out in the sun can cause a burn which leads to the swelling making the lips bigger. This is being called ‘instant filler.’ It is a sunburn and sun damage.”
A sunburn can present in many different ways. The skin on the lips might feel warm and swell as blood flow increases and immune cells reach the affected area.
“Applying sunscreen is just as important as applying it on other areas of your body,” Hirsch said. “Since the skin on the lips is the most susceptible part, sun damage can be a significant risk factor for developing skin cancer.”
Here’s what you can do to help with swelling
It’s important to avoid petroleum and oil products in the sun, and experts told BuzzFeed News, it also might be harmful to apply after a sunburn as well.
“If you have a mild sunburn, use a cool compress on your lips to help with swelling and to decrease the heat in your lips. With a sunburn, do not use any lip products with petroleum; this will keep the heat in and prolong the burn and the symptoms,” Houshmand said. “Taking an anti-inflammatory may be helpful.”
Like other parts of the body, adding an extra step to your routine can lower your risk of skin cancer.
A broad sunscreen that protects both UVA and UVB rays, or has an SPF of 15 or higher on all exposed skin can prevent skin cancer. Additionally, finding a chapstick with an SPF of 15 or higher can protect against sun damage.
“The goal is cooling and pain relief,” Hirsch said. Staying hydrated, avoiding additional sun, gently applying a cold compress soaked in whole milk, taking an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or Tylenol, and staying away from spicy foods can be helpful.
If your skin is peeling, Hirsch also added that it’s critically important to not “help it along” by peeling off the skin on the lips. Additionally, if blisters do appear, don’t pop them.
“They are functioning as a biological wound dressing,” Hirsch said. “Interfering with them such as unroofing or popping them increases the risk of developing an infection.”
“Learn from the experience and always apply, and reapply, sunscreen to the lips,” Hirsch said.