Although it’s common knowledge that long-term exposure to the sun can be harmful to your health, your lips are often overlooked. In truth, your lips are one of the most sensitive areas of your face and body.

Some sun ailments are minor, but just as many are severe. They can even be deadly if not diagnosed and treated correctly. You’re most at risk if you’ve spent a large percentage of your life in the great outdoors, so you need to take the right precautions.

Even though we take steps to avoid direct sunlight, various occupational demands can present challenges. If you work construction, for example, long days in the sun can become part of your day-to-day existence.

Lip damage caused by the sun can be connected to how you spend your spare time or a byproduct of your livelihood. There are several types of blisters that form on the lips. You need to be able to tell them apart in order to treat them correctly.

How Does Sunlight Harm the Lips?

We will now share with you five ways that sun exposure can harm the lips. You will also discover two ways that you can protect yourself from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Let’s take a look at the different lip issues that can arise:

1) Cold Sores

Sunshine is one of the main causes of cold sores. This is especially true if you enjoy the sunshine during the hottest months of the year. It removes moisture from the lips, and this causes small cracks appear. This provides an easy way for the herpes virus to enter your body.

Once infected, it lives in the nerve ganglia for the remainder of your life. At this time, there is no cure for fever blisters (as they are also known). Direct sunlight is a known reason for both primary and recurrent infections.[1]

To summarize:

  • Sun exposure can cause cold sores. If you carry the herpes simplex virus, it is wise to limit your outdoor activities whenever possible. This is vital on clear and hot days when the sun’s rays can be punishing.
  • The sun dries out the skin and causes cracking. This can give the herpes virus an easy entry point. It’s a condition that can’t be cured.

2) Actinic Cheilitis

Extended periods of time in the sun, especially on a routine basis, can lead to actinic cheilitis. Commonly referred to as “farmer’s lip” or “sailors lip,” this ailment is precancerous.

Actinic cheilitis is marked by constant lip dryness and cracking. Lesions and detailed wrinkling are also exhibited.

This condition can be brought on by leisure activities. Occupational demands are also responsible, hence the two “nicknames” (noted above).

To recap:

  • Actinic cheilitis is a precancerous condition that’s caused by extreme sun exposure.[2]
  • Lip cracking, dryness, lesions, and wrinkling are four of the most common visual symptoms.

3) Sunburned Lips

While it is natural to associate a sunburn with the arms and legs, your lips can be affected too.

Lips that are exposed to the sun can dry out and begin to swell and blister. Similar in many ways to actinic cheilitis, sunburned lips can be hard to treat and also lead to other issues. An allergic reaction, or what is known as sun poisoning, can occur in severe cases.

To summarize:

  • Just like any area of the skin, your lips can fall victim to a sunburn. Quite painful and hard to treat, sunburned lips can swell, blister, and bleed.
  • Recurring burns on the lips can lead to a host of serious issues that can have long-term effects. Research has shown that your bottom lip is 12 times more likely to develop a sunburn than your top lip.
  • Seek emergency medical attention if your lips are extremely red and swollen. This could be a sign of an allergic reaction to the sun.[3] Swelling of the tongue in addition to difficulty breathing are also possible in extreme cases.

4) Collagen Altered by the Sun (Wrinkled Lips)

Excessive exposure to the sun can also lead to lip alterations. The natural collagen found in your lips can be modified by the intense strength of the sun.[4] This change becomes more common and noticeable due to the natural aging process.

Because collagen is the natural protein that gives your lips more body, they can become quite vulnerable without its strength. Full lips can become quite thin in both appearance and touch as time passes.

As lip collagen changes, so do the various qualities of the mouth. Without proper strength and structure, deep wrinkles can appear on the mouth and the lips themselves. This can make reasonably young individuals look much older.

To recap:

  • Intense sun exposure over many years can cause the collagen within the lips to be altered. This not only changes the formation of your lips but your mouth as a whole.
  • Full lips can become much thinner, and wrinkles can be the outward byproduct. Collagen alteration can even change how a person speaks in severe cases.
  • As collagen breaks down within your lips, it can give you a much older appearance.

How to keep the lips safe in the sun

5) Lip Cancer

While it is common knowledge that sun exposure can lead to cancer on the arms, legs, neck, face, etc., the lips are largely forgotten. Because your lips are one of the most sensitive areas of the body, skin cancer can quickly develop in this area.

Ranging in types and degrees of severity, cancer of the lip is yet another reason to limit your overall sun exposure.[5] Conditions such as actinic cheilitis and blistering can take a turn for the worse if they are not monitored and treated. Something as simple as an annoying blister can transform into a cancerous lesion if lifestyle habits are not altered.

To summarize…

  • Lip cancer is the worst possible outcome of sun exposure. Minor lip issues caused by the sun can take their toll over time if daily habits do not change and proper treatment is not sought.
  • Natural tanning, recreational activities, and occupational demands can lead to significant issues.
  • It is estimated that almost 4,000 new cases of lip cancer are diagnosed per year. Roughly 90 percent of the cases are squamous cell carcinoma which is cancer of the topmost layer of skin.

Stay Safe by Limiting Sun Exposure

Limiting sun exposure is easier said than done if you are required to be outdoors for your livelihood.

Lip damage caused by the sun can be gradual. They are either not aware of the intense exposure or conclude that no issue will ever arise. It is only human nature to pass the buck and think nothing will ever happen to me.

The important thing to remember about sun exposure is that the hours add up. It is not a per day situation but rather weeks, months, and years. It is not about the hours per day but rather your daily habits. Two to three hours in the sun is not a lot. However, if you are outside for two to three hours for 30 consecutive days, for example, that type of exposure starts to wear on your lips.

To recap:

  • One of the best ways to avoid sun-related issues to your lips is to limit your exposure. The best way you can do this is to be mindful of the big picture. If you are logging a lot of outdoor hours per week, it is essential to cut back.
  • If your occupation requires that you spend hours in the sun, try to seek shade whenever possible. Even something as simple as turning your back to the sun can be beneficial.

How to prevent the lips from being harmed by direct sunlight

SPF Lip Balm

If sun exposure is unavoidable, it is critical that you protect yourself the best way possible. This not only includes traditional skin protection but specialty lip balms as well. While basic chapstick products can coat your lips and keep them moist, it won’t protect them from the sun.

To achieve a layer of protection against harmful UV rays, you must have lip balms with quality SPF protection. Consumer Reports tested a series of products to find the best balm for sunny conditions. Banana Boat Sport Performance Lip Balm SPF 50 led the way with an SPF ranking of 28. While not living up to label expectations, Banana Boat fared the best compared to the OTC competition.

Other notable selections included…

Each product scored no lower than a 22 during SPF testing.

A large percentage of sun-related issues are due to lack of preventative measures. It is quite easy to fall into the “it will never happen to me” trap when it comes to sun exposure. This is likely due to the subtle changes that sun can introduce to your skin. Before you know realize that something is seriously wrong, it can often be too late.

Many health issues are deemed minor until they happen to you. Something as simple as limiting your time in the sun while wearing protective lip balm can work wonders. Taking action now could prevent a lot of problems in the future.


  1. Ludema C, Cole SR, Poole C, Smith JS, Schoenbach VJ, Wilhelmus KR. Association Between Unprotected Ultraviolet Radiation Exposure and Recurrence of Ocular Herpes Simplex Virus. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2014;179(2):208-215. doi:10.1093/aje/kwt241.
  2. Dancyger A, Heard V, Huang B, Suley C, Tang D, Ariyawardana A. Malignant transformation of actinic cheilitis: A systematic review of observational studies. J Invest Clin Dent. 2018;e12343.
  3. Goetze, S. and Elsner, P. (2015), Solar urticaria. JDDG: Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft, 13: 1250-1253. doi:10.1111/ddg.12809
  4. Darvin, M. E., Richter, H. , Ahlberg, S. , Haag, S. F., Meinke, M. C., Le Quintrec, D. , Doucet, O. and Lademann, J. (2014), Influence of sun exposure on the cutaneous collagen/elastin fibers and carotenoids: negative effects can be reduced by application of sunscreen. J. Biophoton., 7: 735-743. doi:10.1002/jbio.201300171
  5. Maruccia M, Onesti MG, Parisi P, Cigna E, Troccola A, Scuderi N. Lip cancer: a 10-year retrospective epidemiological study. Anticancer Res (2012) 32(4):1543–6.