Cracked Lip Corners? Experts Share Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Here's what to do when lip balm isn't cutting it.

Person with long, red hair and red lipstick wearing a turtleneck
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A few things in life are inevitable: that pile of laundry needs to be done, taxes have to be filed, and at some point during the winter, you'll experience chapped lips.

Lip balm is a simple fix for any flaking and tightness caused by cooler dry temperatures. It also can be used to soothe cracked cuticles and tame flyaways. But there is one thing even the most beloved of lip balms can't do: heal cracked, dry mouth corners.

What are the symptoms of angular cheilitis?

Cracked mouth corners are also known by their technical name— angular cheilitis. It causes dry, red, painful cracks on the side of the mouth which can make eating and talking unbearable. Unlike chapped lips, dutifully reapplying Vaseline or Chapstick isn't going to provide much relief — or ultimately heal the cracks.

With the help of Dr. Tracy Evans, board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology in San Francisco, we break down the difference between dry skin and angular cheilitis, how to treat the condition, and most importantly, how to prevent it.

What are the causes of angular cheilitis?

While the cracks on the sides of your mouth might look like the dry, flaky patches you get on your lips during the winter, angular cheilitis is actually inflammation caused by the collection of saliva around the mouth, which can lead to an overgrowth of yeast. That's why lip balms won't completely make it go away (more on that later).

According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, moistening the area (like by licking it or applying a balm) can make the problem worse. "The excess moisture may lead to secondary infection with microorganisms, such as Candida yeast or Staphylococcus bacteria," the organization states.

"People who are sensitive to yeast or fungal illnesses may have more issues, such as patients who are immunosuppressed," Dr. Evans says of those prone to angular cheilitis. "However, wearing braces or a month guard can make you drool at night, and then these mouth cracks can become an issue."

So, how do you get rid of cracked mouth corners?

While Dr. Evans says the condition takes about two to four weeks to resolve with treatment, angular cheilitis often gets worse and more painful if left to its own devices.

As for how to treat dry cracked mouth corners, she says a dermatologist can prescribe "nystatin ointment (an anti-yeast medication) and a mild steroid such as hydrocortisone 2.5% to be used on the affected area three times per day, but especially before bed."

If going to a dermatologist isn't an option, over-the-counter Lotrimin (yep, the same anti-fungal cream used for jock itch and ringworm) can help.

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How can you prevent getting dry cracks around the mouth?

The similarities between chapped lips and angular cheilitis lie in how to prevent both conditions. Applying an occlusive barrier to the sides of the mouth before bed can prevent future flare-ups of angular cheilitis. Dr. Evans recommends Aquaphor or CeraVe.

And finally, lip filler can help keep moisture out. "Interestingly, a little bit of Juvéderm Ultra applied in the corners of the mouth (lateral commissures) keeps the corners of the mouth turned up and can help!," says Dr. Evans. "Filler will also help with a more youthful appearance of your lips."

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