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chapped skin and lips on Shabbat


Rabbi David Sperling

Av 16, 5773
During the week I rely heavily on chapstick and lotion to keep my skin from getting dry and chapped. However, on Shabbat I know there is a prohibition against smearing/smoothing (where did they do this in the Mishkan?). I’ve tried baby oil, but it doesn’t work very well. This issue causes me a considerable amount of distress, as I know that it is forbidden to smear/smooth on Shabbat, but I become so uncomfortable from the dry/chapped skin that I break Shabbat to use lotion and put on chapstick even though I know it’s wrong. Is there any lenient opinion to rely on in terms of using chapstick/lip balm or lotion/cream for your skin? I’ve heard some people say you can dab cream or chapstick on, is this true? If not, can you recommend something else for me to try? Thanks so much.
Shalom, I am sorry to hear that you are suffering on Shabbat from dry skin. In treating this on Shabbat there are two issues at hand. The first is the law against applying medicines in cases where one is not classified as "sick" but only suffering from mild discomfort. In such cases the use of medicines or medical treatments is forbidden by a rabbinic decree. This would seem to prohibit the treatment of your dry skin on Shabbat in any fashion. However there are several possible ways that this may none the less be allowed. Firstly, if you apply the treatment before the skin gets irritable it is not considered as medical treatment to cure a problem, but rather making sure that one does not get sick. This is akin to applying sun block oil before going outside, which is allowed as it is only a preventative measure (as opposed to putting oil on burnt skin, which is a cure). Secondly, if the medical procedure is normally carried out by people not suffering at all it is also allowed. So drinking lemon and honey tea to alleviate a mild sore throat is allowed, as people would drink it even when perfectly healthy. So because eating an oily salad is normal behaviour, you could eat it and let the oil alleviate your chapped lips in the process. Lastly, if the dry skin is of such a serious nature that it may crack and get infected then it would be considered as in the category of a sickness that one is allowed to treat on Shabbat if one does not break any other Shabbat laws (though in general dry lips and skin do not fall into this definition, it could be that one has an extreme case of eczema etc then this would be the case). The next issue is that of "memarayach" which is the spreading of the cream or lotion. This was found in the building of the Mishkan (tabernacle) when the hides were treated. A thick lotion or cream may not be spread over the body. There are several opinions about exactly how thick or thin the creams may be to be allowed or forbidden - but things that flow like thin oil are allowed by all opinions. Many allow baby oils, lubricating jellies (e.g. KY jelly), liquid soaps, and olive oil (see "The 39 Melachos" Rav Ribiat section 3/E/c). Even with the forbidden creams and lotions it is only forbidden to rub them onto (or into) the skin, but merely applying the cream or ointment to the skin, with no smearing or rubbing is allowed. So one may dab it onto the skin, or press (not smear) against the skin – though I am doubtful wether this will provide the treatment needed for dry skin (ibid). Based on all this I can suggest the following - if your skin is not yet cracked you should find a liquid lotion to apply on Shabbat. If you can't find one, you could water down (or "oil down") a thicker one until it is runny. As for your lips, I have seen clear liquid "roller-ball" lip treatments, which might be of help to you. As they are liquid, and apply no colour to the lips, they are acceptable on Shabbat. If the skin is already chapped and irritable, then I can suggest eating food dipped in oil, and letting the oil soak into and over your lips, which may provide some help. Blessings.
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