Pros: The fact that petroleum jelly has been in use since 1878 seems to attest its effectiveness as a salve for dry skin. While studies have found that the substance doesn't have an actual healing effect, it does create a seal on your skin, preventing air from drying it out and protecting it from the elements.
Cons: Petroleum jelly is made from just that—petroleum, a nonrenewable resource that may be contaminated with cancer-causing agents called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Furthermore, ingesting too much of it (which is easy to do when you slather it on your lips in winter) can lead to upset stomachs and diarrhea.
Pros: Beeswax works like petrolatum by creating a seal on your lips that protects them from air and other elements that can dry them out. Plus, it's made by bees, so there's no worry about depleting nonrenewable resources and there are no adverse health effects associated with licking too much beeswax off your lips.
Cons: If the current decline of honeybees continues, beeswax-based lip balms may not be around for us to enjoy forever. Plus, the cost of the ingredient tends to raise the price of the lip treatment.
And the Winner is...
Go with… Beeswax. Since beeswax does everything that petroleum-based ingredients do, without any health or environmental downside, the decision is an easy one once you compare the two types, says Mindy Pennybacker, editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010). "Rather than paraffin or petrolatum [two other names for petroleum jelly] waxes, I like products that use beeswax, cocoa butter, and/or shea butter as a base," she says. "For sheer soothing, you can't beat pure shea butter in tins."
Keep these things in mind when shopping for lip balms:
• Look for the seal. "The vague terms 'green,' 'organic,' 'natural,' and so forth are not regulated," Pennybacker says. Companies can slap those terms on any product, regardless of what's inside. Instead, rely on seals signifying a product has been certified by an independent third party, such as the "USDA Organic" seal or the "Natural Products Association Certified" seal, "both of which restrict the use of unhealthy synthetic ingredients," she adds.
• Read the ingredients label. Petroleum jelly is also labeled as paraffin, petrolaturm, and mineral oil, so avoid those ingredients when shopping. Also watch out for "fragrance," a code word for synthetic chemicals that may include hormone-disrupting phthalates, salicylic acid (which can interfere with reproductive health), or any other ingredient whose name you don't recognize. Not all natural ingredients are benign either. "Some plant oils, particularly citrus and lemon verbena, are highly irritating and potentially allergenic," she notes, and can crop up as scents in some lip balms.
• Raid your kitchen cabinet. If your lips are parched and you aren't in the mood to hit the store, or you just prefer a DIY approach, use a little cooking oil to soothe an irritated pucker, suggests Pennybacker. "Any cheap cooking oil will soothe chapping, including safflower, canola, and corn oils." Plus, you know it's edible so it won't upset your stomach, she adds. "I keep a bottle of coconut oil in the fridge, where it hardens into kind of a waxy texture, and it cools lips as well as soothes!" Just don't put any kind of cooking oil on sunburned skin. "It can irritate and prolong the sensation of burning," she says. Also, she notes, cooking oils can stain clothes and bedding, so best not to use them when wearing expensive clothing or before you hit the sack.