Psychologist Rebecca Berry categorizes lip-biting as a body-focused repetitive behavior (or BFRB), which is any self-imposed action that causes damage to the skin, hair, or nails. “BFRBs occur as a coping mechanism in situations where a person is feeling uncomfortable or anxious; symptoms are often exacerbated by stress,” Berry explains. “People with a BFRB find that repetitive behaviors can provide relief from painful emotions and provide a self-soothing function.” In other words: Heightened stress often equals more lip-biting and licking.
Boredom, another key factor of quarantine, can cause an uptick in lip-biting, too. “Others may experience boredom or dissatisfaction and find that biting and chewing offer sensory stimulation and sometimes promote focus on a task,” Berry says. “These behaviors are reinforced and therefore repeated due to the successful alleviation of negative affective and physical states occurring immediately upon completion of the behavior.”
That said, lip-biting and licking are very hard habits to break — but they’re ones you ought to consider kicking ASAP. So we asked the experts to give us their best advice on how to stop biting and licking lips because they’re much more harmful habits than you’d expect.
Why you need to stop lip-biting or licking:
According to dermatologists, the short-term side-effects of consistent lip-licking and biting are rather mild. Connecticut-based dermatologist Mona Gohara says you can quickly develop what she calls a “lip licker’s rash” that’s pink and scaly (in other words: extra chapped lips). Psychologist and dermatologist Evan Rieder adds that a rash like this can have a burning sensation — ouch.
But what can happen after you develop that short-term rash can be far more dangerous… and gross. “Broken down skin can lead to infections that cause swelling, pain, and discharge,” Rieder says. New York City dermatologist Roy Seidenberg adds that lip-biting specifically can cause scarring and outbreaks of cold-sores due to the broken skin’s heightened potential for infection. “Biting of the lip can also cause rupture or blockage of a saliva gland, which manifests as a nodule in the lip called a mucocele,” he says. “While not serious, they usually get in the way and keep getting bitten so they take a while to resolve.”
And on top of all that, Gohara says that persistent lip-biting or licking can lead to something called lichenification, otherwise known as thickened skin that’s often characterized by brown or white discoloration. A quick image search of lichenification around the lips will show you skin that’s broken out in patchy, red skin that’s flaky and bumpy at a much higher level than your average chapped lips. If your natural lip line starts looking a little distorted, that’s lichenification at work.
How to stop biting or licking your lips
Learning how to stop biting or licking your lips can be really hard because they’re mostly subconscious habits, says Seidenberg. Kicking them may require help from a few topical treatments, but it’s the amount of will power and effort you put into it that will determine how successful you are. Here are the key tips and tricks experts have to offer.
Identify your habit and what is likely to trigger it.
“The first step is to ensure that patients are aware of their behaviors and want help,” says Rieder. “Without that, any recommendations are fruitless.” Once you do that, he says, you should focus primarily on learning behavioral modification training and relaxation techniques before looking into topical dermatological treatments “later down the line.”
Look into therapeutic techniques to help manage your habit-triggering emotions.
If your lip-biting and licking reaches a severe degree, you might want to seek the help of a mental health professional via a telehealth consultation for the kind of training Rieder recommends. Berry outlines some cognitive-behavioral therapy methods like “mindfulness training” and “acceptance and commitment therapy” wherein patients identify the emotions that trigger their habits and learn to experience them head-on.