Like so many, Lisa Skaryd started young -- at age 11, to be exact -- when she took her first hit at a birthday party.
Now, at 26, she feels physically uncomfortable when she can't get to her stash. Her lips feel dry. They start to ache and crack.
"If I discover that I don't have my stuff with me, I stop and buy one right away," said Skaryd, a temporary office worker in Chicago. "I would be frightened to be without it."
Skaryd admits it: She is a lip balm addict.
Especially during the dry winter season, these obsessive appliers of Chap Stick, Blistex, Carmex and other products can be seen indulging their habit many times a day -- as many as 30 in Skaryd's case. They shove dozens of tubes into drawers and pockets. When they run out, they sometimes resort to desperate measures (think lard).
While no statistics exist on binge balmers, evidence of their numbers is hard to ignore. One need look no further than the fact that, since 2001, Ford Motor Co. has included a storage niche for a tube on the Escape.
In the 12 months ending in October, consumers spent more than $281 million at pharmacies, supermarkets and most discount stores on lip balm and cold sore products -- an increase of 8 percent over the previous year. That doesn't even count what is sold at cosmetics counters and specialty stores.
Lip balm is so popular that manufacturers are constantly called on to refute rumors that nefarious corporate chieftains are conspiring to slip harmful ingredients into their products to ratchet consumption.
The Carmex brand has been dogged by an urban myth that it puts ground fiberglass in its product to irritate the lips, thus compelling the user to apply more. The tale is so persistent that the company posts a disclaimer on its Web site.
"If there was something harmful or addictive, the [Food and Drug Administration] wouldn't let us use it," said company Controller Paul Woelbing, with the weariness of a man who has answered the question many times.
Dermatologists may argue lip balm overuse is merely a bad habit but do concede that like any other healthy impulse, the desire for moist lips can be taken to extreme.
"There's no question that some people need to apply it many times a day -- and become anxious when it's not available -- but that probably has more to do with an oral fixation than overly chapped lips," said Murad Alam, a dermatologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Maybe it's stress or too much lip licking that has folks reflexively reaching for lip balm, Alam suggested. Or it could be the pleasant taste, the aroma or the soothing sensation. "But not a serious moisture deficiency."
Matthew Topham, 38, of Salt Lake City, said he has an excuse for keeping little tubs of Carmex in his office, in his car and throughout the house -- including at his bedside -- for whenever he needs "that familiar menthol rush."
Skaryd is also a purist, but her poison is glittery Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, which she first tasted at that ill-fated childhood birthday party.
It's more the product than her prodigious use that causes her embarrassment. "I'm a little beyond the glitter age. . . . It's very Britney Spears," she said. Yet Skaryd is reluctant to try another brand. "It's my constant companion."
Not surprisingly, many addicts are first exposed in their formative years. Carol Tagler of Olympia Fields, Ill., got her first whiff -- something cherry, she vaguely recalls -- at 16. Almost 40 years later, she is still a user.
Gina Fazzini, a freshman at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, Ill., estimated that she applies at 30-minute intervals. "If I had unlimited money, I'd go crazy and buy every possible color and flavor," she said.
While some users are in denial, others acknowledge their powerlessness and search for an explanation. That might explain the persistent rumors about Carmex Inc.
Woelbing, grandson of the founder of the Franklin, Wis., company that makes the product, insists the ingredients have remained the same since the 1930s, when it was concocted by his grandfather and cooked atop the kitchen stove.
The "tingly" effect comes from camphor and menthol, he said. (That pairing also appears in the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Blistex and other brands.) All the ingredients -- which also include salicylic acid, phenol, petrol, lanolin and fragrance -- are listed right on the cap.
Woelbing said he takes the accusations in stride. "The way I look at it, there's no such thing as bad publicity."
Addicts seeking support can turn to the not entirely serious Lip Balm Anonymous Web site (www.kevdo.com/lipbalm).
What started out as a joke in 1995 has brought out hundreds of testimonials, some maybe even in earnest. Addicts confess scraping out the last vestiges from a container with a toothpick. They admit resorting, in a pinch, to hand lotion -- even lard.
"I don't think there's any coincidence that as tobacco declined, lip balm usage picked up," said founder Kevin Crossman, 35, an Internet project manager who got hooked as a child when he got cherry Chap Stick in his Christmas stocking.
Alam, the dermatologist, said it is unlikely that any particular ingredient in lip balm causes users to get hooked and that overindulgence is more likely to be a habit than a true addiction.
As for camphor and menthol, which produce that much sought-after tingly feeling, "they don't really serve any medical function," Alam said. "They may feel like something is happening, but it's really not providing any benefit."
Whatever the ingredients, balms work by providing a "seal" over the ultrathin skin on the lips, said Oliver Drabkin, a dermatologist at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Ill. "They really serve the purpose of holding moisture in rather than adding additional moisture."
While it is doubtful that over-balming can cause any serious harm, every structure in the body has its own natural secretions and excessive use can "upset the normal balance of things," Alam said.
"When something -- such as eyedrops -- comes from the outside, the body doesn't know what to do anymore," he said. "Really, there's little reason to use [lip balm] more than four or five times a day. Beyond that, it's all marketing."