You might have noticed that rock climbers are obsessed with their hands. Hang out at any crag, and you’ll observe people constantly examining the epidermis of their hands for damage, tamping their tips with the end of the thumb to test the skin’s resilience, trimming nails, filing calluses, taping sore digits, and otherwise tending to wounds that might impede progress on future climbs. It is a scene from some depraved, chalk and dirt coated, self-serve manicure salon.
Little surprise, then, that in pursuit of ideal skin conditions, climbers also apply a wide array of substances to their battered mitts. There is a veritable medicine cabinet worth of crap we dab and slather on our hands so we might climb better, climb longer, climb more often. Below, an abridged list in three sections: drying agents; salves, balms, and oils; and moisturizers. If I’ve left out anything, which I almost certainly have, please add in the comments.
In climbing, moisture is friction’s enemy. Sweaty fingers or humid air can reduce your ability to crank by up to 32% (I just made that up). Accordingly, we climbers are constantly looking for ways to dry out our skin and maximize our ability to stick to small, sloping, or otherwise shitty holds. Below are several specific brands of drying agent, for illustrative purposes, but keep in mind that many companies make chalk, liquid chalk, resin powder, and even scented chalk.
Gym Chalk (aka, the classic)
Claims: Helps absorb moisture, non-toxic
Ingredients: Magnesium carbonate
Downside: Leaves unsightly white marks on the rock and your clothes.
Claims: “Calm your mind and ignite your power to make the move with this spice powered herbal chalk” and “Sooth your sore finger tips, worn thin from days of throwing yourself at a rock, so the last pitch is as fun as the first!”
Ingredients: Magnesium carbonate, organic extracts, natural sources of menthol.
(Pictured: Joshua Tree Fire Herbal Chalk)
Claims: “Selected to match common rock colors. The result is a chalk that provides performance climbers demand but does not leave behind unsightly white stains. Rock Chalk is all natural, nontoxic and washable.”
Ingredients: Magnesium carbonate blend with all natural pigments.
Downside: Requires a separate chalk bag for each rock type you tackle.
(Pictured: Terra Rock Colored Chalk)
Claims: “solves the issue of keeping your skin coated with chalk on long boulder problems or intense routes were it is impossible, or too strenuous, to take a hand off for a dip in the chalk bag” and “And then there are the environmental benefits – use liquid chalk and the normal trail of white paw marks will be greatly reduced.”
Ingredients: Alcohol, magnesium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide, colphonium, hydroxypropylcellulosum, styrax bezoin.
Downside: Alcohol component can over-dry. Some liquid chalk contains resin (rosin; see below).
(Pictured: DMM Liquid Chalk)
Rosin (or Resin)
Claims: Improves grip (couldn’t find any claims with this particular product, but that’s the long and short of it).
Ingredients: Powdered pine resin (colophane), often with additional fillers.
Downside: Creates a glassy (read: frictionless), black coating where used (Fontainebleau, anyone?) . Over time makes the rock almost unclimbable unless you continue to use rosin.
(Pictured: 8c Plus Colophane)
Claims: “One little dab of the cream, rub it into your hands and your hands will stay bone dry for hours or days” (from foosdirect-store.com). “Methenamine is a condensation product of formaldehyde and ammonia and in solution it releases formaldehyde at a rate depending on the acidity of the medium. The resultant anhidrosis is essentially the result of precipitated protein plugs in the sweat duct” (from a scientific study found here). “This stuff has been a game changer by helping me keep my largest organ in better nick” (from Andrew Bisharat’s review on eveningsends.com).
(Active) Ingredients: Methenamine.
Downside: Danger of extreme cracking and splitting due to over-dryness. Unless you live in Germany, you’ll have to mail order from shady foosball e-commerce site.
SALVES, BALMS, OILS
While drying agents help you perform on the rock, climbers turn to this class of hand schmutz to help their poor, battered hands heal. Split tips, bloody flappers, and weeping tips? No problem! Just rub on some herbal compound, and you’ll be cranking like it never happened! Truth is, the only cure for truly damaged skin is time, but these various treatments might speed the process a bit…
Joshua Tree Climbing Salve
Claims: “Effective in treating dry, chapped skin, chafing, abrasions, scrapes and cuts” and “moisturizes and promotes healing without softening calluses that the body produces for protection.”
Ingredients: Beeswax, sunflower oil, jojoba, lavender and tea tree oil, freshly brewed extracts of calendula, echinacea, chaparral, comfrey, myrrh, and benzoin gum.
Downside: Oily consistency leaves anything you touch with a sheen for the first 10-15 minutes after applying.
Claims: “It soothes. It calms. It nourishes. It relieves. It promotes skin renewal. It keeps you climbing.”
Ingredients: Unlisted on the website, but is made by hand with “no machines, just pots and pans. Using only the finest natural and vegan ingredients”
Downside: You just put something called “tip juice” on your hands. It was made in some British dude’s “pots and pans.” And you paid to do it.
Metolius Climber’s Hand Repair Balm
Claims: “Antiseptic blend speeds healing and promotes new skin growth.”
Ingredients: Beeswax, almond oil, apricot oil, Shea butter, cocoa butter, mango butter, St. John’s wort, calendula, chamomile, chickweed, plantain, comfrey leaf, olive oil, aloe vera, jojoba, wheat germ, and a blend of tea tree and lavender essential oils.
Downside: Like Joshua Tree Climbing Salve, can be oily.
Climb On! Bar
Claims: “This one product can soothe burns, cuts, scrapes, rashes, cracked cuticles and heels, tissue nose, road rash, diaper rash, abrasions, poison ivy…any skin issue that needs deep moisturizing and nourishing.”
Ingredients: Yellow beeswax, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, wheatgerm oil, essential ois of Citrus vulgaris, lavender, lemon, vitamin E.
Downside: Potent herbal scent.
Claims: “Produced especially for climbers who are healing injuries” and “will keep your fingers in good form and less susceptible to tweak when applied after each session” and “quickly eases pain from sore tendons, joints and muscles and supports the daily abuse of hard climbing and solid crimping” and “It can be very effective in case of sprains for example for boosting micro-circulation in addition to cryotherapy” and “Crimp Oil is also very effective in cases of migraine.”
Ingredients: Helichrysum italicum, peppermint, lemon eucalyptos, lavindin super, wintergreen, geranium, equisetum arvense.
Downside: Extreme hippyfication.
Common climbing wisdom has it that lotions can soften the skin, leaving you more prone to damage in future outings. Personally, cold weather and constant chalk application make my hands so dry, I’d be cracked and bleeding if I didn’t apply some sort of lotion routinely throughout the fall and winter. I’m not alone. Many climbers have found a use for moisturizers in their arsenal of skin-case treatments. Since dry skin is by no means limited to the vertically minded, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of acceptable lotions out there. Here are a few that I like or that have been recommended to me by other climbers:
Mane and Tail Hoofmaker
Claims: “Originally developed for horses to moisturize dry, cracked, brittle hooves. Since applied to the hoof by human hands, over time many of those using Hoofmaker on their horses noticed dramatic improvement in the condition of their hands and nails.”
Ingredients: Water, distearyldimonium chloride, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, glycerin, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine lactate, cocos nucifer oil, cetyl alcohol, Polysorbate 60, Steareth 20, Glycine soya oil, DMDM, hydantoin fragrance, methylparaben lanolin, PEG-150, stearate propylparaben, hydrolyzed collegen, PEG-25, castor oil, sodium chloride, allantoin, olea europaea fruit oil, benzyl sallcylate, citronellol, geraniol, hexyl cinnamal, butylphenyl, methylpropional, limonene, linalool, hydroxyisohexyl-3-Cyxlohexene, Carboxaldehyde, Yellow 5 (C1 19140), Yellow 6 (C1 15985).
Downside: Look at that ingredient list! May lead to uncontrollable snorting, neighing, and desire to run wild through the hills.
Eucerin Intensive Repair Extra Enriched Hand Creme
Claims: “Repairs and gently exfoliates dry, cracked skin on the hands and fingers.”
Ingredients: Water, glycerin, urea, glyceryl stearate, stearyl alcohol, dicaprylyl ether, sodium lactate, dimethicone, PEG-40 stearate, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, lactic acid, xanthan gum, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, propylparaben.
Downside: “Contains alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, and particularly the possibility of sunburn.”
Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve
Claims: “Allows skin to actually draw and absorb water from the air, forming a “glove–like” protective barrier against moisture loss” and “helps protect against and repair the appearance of severe dryness caused by heavy industrial work, manual labor, neglect, or exposure to harsh elements.”
Ingredients: “A blend of botanical oils including avocado, eucalyptus, and sesame seed, as well as a natural wax derived from olive oil.”
Downside: Super greasy. Super expensive.