Ask the Past: Lip balm

I always get really bad chapped lips in the winter. Can you recommend a good recipe for lip balm?

Weirdly enough, chapped hands and remedies for them seem to have been much more common than remedies for chapped lips - The Housewife's Handbook (1940s) suggests rubbing them with glycerine or lanolin, and Watkins Household Hints (1941), in a power move, suggests Watkins Menthol-Camphor Ointment. That might seem like unhelpful advice, but it turns out that the J.R. Watkins Company still exists today, and they still make a menthol-camphor ointment, so that's always an option.

Hyleigh's Medical and Stock Book (1932) doesn't give a lip balm recipe, but it does suggest these remedies for cracked lips (which it calls "a painful, unsightly blemish"):

When the crack has been acquired, there are three things that can be done - touch the crack with spirits of camphor; paint it with iodine; or apply compound tincture of benzoin. The latter is most pleasant to use and should be applied three or four times a day.

You'll be pleased to hear that tincture of benzoin is quite safe, but it turns out that camphor is toxic when ingested - apparently four grams of camphor can be lethal - so be a little careful putting that on your lips.

This was surprisingly not the most alarming recipe I found - A Treatise on Lead (1770) suggests something called cerate of Saturn, which is made of oil, wax, and lead oxide, and which it says is good for healing ulcers and wounds, as well as "against excoriations, redness and irritations of the skin, ebullitions, chapped lips, itchings, burns, and many other external complaints".

If you want something cheap and time-tested, though, you can't go past this advice from A New and Accurate System of Natural History (1772):

With regard to its medicinal qualities, beef suet is emollient and resolvent, and may be used in glysters to an ounce, to abate sharp humours in the intestines. It is exceeding good to heal chapped lips. It is very common to see the lower people make use of tallow candles by way of lip salve, and it is the best that is.

I'm sure that will help.

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