Balm for Loose Lips

All too often in modern times progress turns out to be a matter of two steps forward accompanied by at least one step back. So we have, for example, that public-health scourge that I can remember hearing about from the 1950s: no, not polio, but chapped lips. At the time, this malady was a source of concern to many leading American news publications, which nonetheless optimistically continued to maintain that “We can lick this problem!” (At least I remember that this was covered back then in Mad Magazine; I guess that shows you the limits to the research I have time to undertake.) As we know, modern technology eventually stepped in via the marketplace, in the form of commercially-sold tubes of lip balm, to bear out those magazines’ optimism. But now the curse of lip balm addiction has reared its ugly head, at least according to yesterday’s report (“Enjoy, But Smear It On with Moderation”) from the Dutch newspaper Nederlands Dagblad.

That the Nederlands Dagblad is covering this subject at all is itself a hoot, since this is the religious newspaper that puts the phrase “Involved as a Christian” (Christelijk betrokken) in its masthead, and whose website shuts down entirely on the Sabbath. (I’m serious: next Sunday try to take your browser to the ND website; all you’ll get is a spare welcoming page politely reminding you that it is closed for the Christian day of rest.) But just as I have already learned that it’s always worthwhile to take a look at the ND’s daily list of articles (except on Sunday, of course) because at times they cover things with an interesting angle or even achieve a scoop, so I should also not be surprised that they can occasionally come up with a humorous take on a funny story.

And this is a funny story – as well as, as we’ll see, a rich source for numerous puns – but also apparently a legitimate one. After all, there is a website – Lip Balm Anonymous – devoted to this alleged problem of lip balm addiction. (I know you’ll go check it out; it’s all in English. Don’t miss the “LBA News” section down at the lower-right: “Lip Balm Anonymous was rated #327 out of 505 in the new book 505 Unbelievably Stupid Web Pages. LBA is considering taking legal action against the author and publisher.”)

43 ROUTES TO LIP BALM DEPENDENCY

That’s all very well, but ultimately ND reporter Lo van der Wal (and I don’t know whether that’s a man or a woman) adopts an attitude towards LBA that is scarcely more respectful than that 505 book. For example, Van der Wal brings up for discussion early on the LBA Self-Test for Lip Balm Addiction offered on that site. Forty-three questions?! (e.g. “8. Are you experiencing financial difficulties due to your lip balm use?”) And if you answer even one of them with “Yes,” you’re supposed to be at least a candidate for a “lip balm dependency problem”?

That can’t be right, Van der Wal concludes, and cites testimony available elsewhere on the Net that debunks the whole concept of lip balm addiction. For instance, “[a]ccording to Dr. Charles Zugerman, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Northwestern University Medical School, people do not become addicted to lip care products or the ingredients in them. Rather, people may become habituated to the soothing feeling of having a lip care product on their lips. . . . There is no such thing as physical addiction to lip balm.” And there are plenty of further press-extracts from other medical experts, making the same point, from the same on-line source.

FROM OUR OWN DUTCH LIP-DOCTOR

The thing is, this “on-line source” is the website for Blistex, one of the leading world-wide lip balm manufacturers! Could all this “expert testimony” shooting down the idea of physical addiction be nothing more than lip service? (I regret to admit that that last bon mot does come from Van der Wal – aided by the fact that the term does translate directly into Dutch – and not from me.) Journalistic integrity – meaning a journalist’s obligation to embark upon true research when writing up a story, beyond just Mad Magazine – requires that the ND reporter get a truly independent opinion, from an expert s/he finds his/herself. This Van der Wal does find, in the shape of dermatologist Dr. C.J.W. van Ginkel, out of Deventer (a city in the mid-eastern Netherlands – and could you come up with a more Dutch-like name than the good doctor’s even if you tried?).

It turns out that Dr. van Ginkel is also rather sceptical about the idea of lip balm addiction. And he is quite qualified to judge these things, as an expert in contact-allergies (e.g. those provoked by the use of cosmetics), who tells Van der Wal that he has to put up at least once per week with lip from his patients complaining about dryness and/or chapping. (Too often it amounts to “cheek,” although that’s usually not the area being complained about; sometimes it’s even “jaw.”) Usually the need (and therefore the desire) for additional lip protection is simply a matter of physical factors such as particularly dry, sunny, or windy weather, or even excessive exposure to artificially-dry environments such as air-conditioned buildings. But excessive licking – a nervous tic like biting one’s nails – is also a contributing factor; as Van der Wal hears it from Dr. van Ginkel’s own lips, “Your saliva is quite aggressive,” with all sorts of nasty enzymes contained within it. The doctor even suggests an experiment to bear out the truth of what he’s saying (although we have to hope he intends it as simply a thought-experiment): “Just lick your underarm one hundred times. Then you’ll get an eczema spot there for sure.”

Finally, another psychological factor that can lead people to use lip balm is the odors that are built into them, most commonly vanilla, that people get used to smelling in that spot that, after all, is just below their nose. But in Dr. van Ginkel’s opinion such psychological triggers never come close to qualifying as an actual physical addiction. Nor, if for whatever reason one does become a devoted lip balm fan, does he give much credence to the theory that lip balm can inhibit lips’ own production of fatty substances to keep themselves naturally moist and smooth.

If the good doctor has anything to say about it, then, there will be no health warning-labels affixed to tubes of lip balm anytime soon. About the worst he can say about such products is that people usually preferred to be kissed without the additional presence of such substances rather than with. In short, Dr. van Ginkel’s would advise people looking for valid information to refer to that Blistex website rather than Lip Balm Anonymous – that is, if they’re seeking lip sync.

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