Climbing skincare is a complex subject that needs to be approached from many different angles, especially if we’re talking about hand care. Climbers need to take extra good care of their hands for obvious reasons. Lack of injuries and good skin tone can result in improved performance, and while applying some climbing balm or some hand cream after a hard day’s work can help to alleviate some of the damage, I think it’s better to prevent damage from occurring beforehand.
There are some ways to go about climbing skincare that greatly reduce the risk of injury. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are certain things that you can do before climbing, as well as things to consider during and after climbing. In this article, I’ll tell you everything I know about rock climbing skincare, including tips to keep your skin healthy and strong, the best climbing balms that you can get your hands on, and what you can do to speed up injury recovery.
Skin type also plays an important role when it comes to keeping hands healthy and clean. To be specific, you’ll want to use the appropriate soap for your skin type. This seems like a good place to start, actually, so let’s see what you can do to keep your hands clean before a climb.
Keeping your hands clean.
Keeping your hands clean can actually have a big impact on your climbing performance. Ideally, you should strive to keep your hands well-moisturized yet dry for improved grip. Some people have dry hands most of the time, while others tend to sweat even if they’re not performing strenuous activities. Take a moment to figure out where you fall in, and let’s take it from there.
If your hands are dry most of the day, you’ll want to use a moisturizing soap when you clean them. If you have oily hands, a standard bar of soap will do a fine job removing extra grease. Moreover, washing your hands with hot water also helps with removing grease and skin oils. You don’t have to use expensive soap, just the right type.
What can you do to prepare yourself before a climb?
It’s important to remember that different rock types affect the skin differently. If you plan to climb in a particular area for a long period of time, all you have to do is keep at it every day and your skin will adapt in a week or so. For instance, sandstone and limestone won’t put too much pressure on your skin, and the skin on your hands might tend to stay softer. On the other hand, tough rocks such as granite, monzonite and volcanic tuff will cause your skin to harden in order to prepare you for the more challenging routes.
You can take matters into your own hands and train at rock climbing gyms. This will encourage the formation of callouses at high-stress points and will help you tackle the real thing with more confidence. If you need a list of the best rock climbing gyms in the US, I’ve written a comprehensive guide for you right here.
Trim your nails.
Trimming your nails is incredibly important before a climb, but even more important is to trim them the right way. There are two reasons why you’ll want to keep your nails short and neat: you don’t want to scrape them against the climbing wall and make “that” noise, and you don’t want to get hangnails.
The best way to go about this is to trim your nails short until you only have a little bit of white nail on each finger. Practice makes perfect for this, and after you’ll do it a couple of times you’ll get the hang of it. If your nails hurt after you do it, you’ve trimmed them too short. If your nails still scrape against the wall, you need to cut them shorter. Most climbing gyms have nail clippers available for the public, but sharing a nail clipper with a few hundred people is not exactly ideal for a number of reasons. Better to just do it yourself at home.
Use a hand salve before climbing.
Moisturizing your hands a few hours before your climbing session is definitely a good idea. Moisturized skin is elastic skin, which is much less prone to tearing or cracking. However, it’s worth knowing which hand salve to use and which to avoid. Because you’re about to climb in a few hours, you’ll need a salve that doesn’t leave any residue, and which is able to hydrate your skin as quickly as possible. There are two main products I know of that can perform these tasks, and I’ll do my best to describe each individually.
1. SKINourishment ClimbON.
Widely regarded as one of the best climbing hand salves, ClimbON by SKINourishment is a relatively affordable salve that was created using plants and beeswax. While some climbers don’t recommend using wax-based hand salves, I actually had a positive experience with this one.
Apparently, the manufacturer doesn’t use any synthetic products, alcohol or water, and the salve is completely safe for adults, children, and even animals. I’m not here to dispute these claims, as I’m mostly interested in the salve’s ability to hydrate the skin and keep it smooth and elastic. On that account, the salve does its job admirably.
That being said, while it is exceptionally good at moisturizing, you should know that the balm is quite thick and doesn’t absorb very quickly into the skin. I’d mostly recommend using this balm before bed and not before climbing per se.
Don’t expect ClimbON to make your calluses go away either. The salve was designed to smooth skin as quickly as possible. It’s particularly useful if you live in an area with a dry climate.
2. Joshua Tree Healing Salve.
As an alternative to the product above, the Joshua Tree healing salve was designed specifically with healing in mind. Therefore, you can use this salve after your hands have already gone through some rough times. According to the manufacturer, this product is created using 100% natural ingredients, and it is well-suited for a wide array of activities such as climbing, surfing, paddling, scuba diving, and wakeboarding.
One common issue with hand salves is that they might end up softening your calluses so much that they might rip open. Joshua thought about this, it seems, as this salve doesn’t contain any actual skin softeners. Instead, its active ingredients work by hydrating the skin and making it more elastic. That’s exactly what you need for climbing if you ask me. Moreover, the healing salve doesn’t include wax, as it was created using a combination of essential oils.
In short, this will heal your hands without softening your calluses, which makes it worth every penny.
In general, you should use hand salves as a moisturizing treatment after every climbing session. However, it’s not always practical or convenient to apply a salve right after coming down from the cliffs, which is why I always recommend putting these on before bed. If you’re worried about smearing the salve over your bedding, you can always wear gloves or wrap your hands, as this could help keep the moisturizing agent close to the skin for longer.
Don’t apply hand salves right before climbing, as this will greatly impact your grip and performance. It can also prove dangerous for obvious reasons. If you feel like your skin is not up to the task that day, just wait a while, treat your skin properly, and come back when things improve. As a bonus tip, make sure to drink plenty of water if you want to get into this lifestyle. Hydration levels can have a huge impact on your skin elasticity, so just drink as much water as you can throughout the day, particularly if you’re going to climb in dry environments.
How to cope with skin injuries in climbing.
If you’re going to be a rock climber, you’re going to have to deal with some injury from time to time. The reason for this is simple: there are so many other things you need to keep an eye out for, that you won’t even notice scraping your hands or banging them on hard surfaces. It’s unavoidable because hands are such an important part of any climbing routine. While your feet can rely on shoes for protection (see the best climbing shoes here), climbing with gloves is not advisable, as it would diminish your sense of feeling.
While preventing injury is always a good idea, there are some things that we can do to make our lives easier in the event of an injury. Let’s start off with the dreadful split tips, shall we?
Split tips in climbing are exactly what they sound like. The skin at the bottom of your fingertips splits and causes an open wound that’s quite painful and quite difficult to live with if you have an active lifestyle. Depending on the severity of the split, you can either apply some liquid bandage and some tape and carry on, or you might have to stop climbing altogether and wait for the split to heal up.
It’s worth noting that a split-tip can take up to a week to heal up, which is quite a bit of time to sit on the sidelines. Also, the area will be prone to a similar injury after healing, especially if you plan to use the exact same holds. Adding some variety to your climbing regimen might be recommended in this case, all in an effort to avoid re-opening the wound and causing even more downtime.
Flappers represent my second-worse kind of climbing injury, not necessarily because of the pain and discomfort but mainly because they can be so unpredictable. Flappers can appear out of nowhere. They’re basically loose “flaps” of skin or broken calluses. They occur when the callus becomes too hard and rough in relation to the skin around it. If you’re not aware of this and you just climb normally, you can end up with a flapper in no time at all.
In order to deal with flappers, the best thing you can do is clean the area and just cut the loose skin off. Some climbers have said that taping the flapper down will cause the skin to re-attach itself, but this has never really worked in my experience. You’ll want to minimize the chance of further tearing after you cut it off, so cut down as much as you can and clean the wound again afterward.
While not particularly debilitating on its own, frayed skin could lead to more serious tearing if not addressed. Fortunately, you can solve this skincare issue rather easily using a pumice stone or a file. The trick is to find the right file with the right granulation. If you’re a beginner and your skin is just starting to harden, a finer file will probably get the job done.
If you’re a more experienced climber, you might want to use some sandpaper instead, as your skin is probably too hard for a regular file to keep up with. Sand down the frayed skin in order to achieve a smooth surface. Smooth skin (even if it’s thinner) is better for grip than thick skin with frayed sections all over it.
If you decide to climb in sandstone regions, you might find that the tips of your fingers will go through a natural process of erosion. This is mildly painful and it happens when the tips of your fingers turn pink and start oozing a clear liquid. If your tips do get worn down, you’ll want to stop climbing for a while in order to let your skin adjust and grow back stronger.
You won’t have to wait too long, fortunately, as only a day or so is usually enough to allow the skin to recover. If you don’t want to stop or you can’t stop, you could potentially cover the tips of your fingers with friction tape. This might impact your feeling and performance, though, so use this trick carefully.
What can you do to keep your hands dry for climbing?
If you have an issue with oily hands, you’ll want to keep them as dry as possible before a climb. One way to do this is to apply chalk right before you go climbing, but that’ll only get you so far. You can use a drying agent such as Antihydral if you have seriously damp hands, but make sure to use this agent in moderation as it can have extreme effects.
You can also use liquid chalk on your hands right before you apply loose chalk, but mostly as a foundation in order to keep your hands dry for longer.
Putting together a basic skincare kit. What should it include?
Liquid bandages are probably my favorite climbing skin care products, mainly because they provide such a good alternative to superglue. It is worth mentioning that they’re not as resilient. At the end of the day, though, they work very well as an intermediary between your skin and your climbing tape. You can use a liquid bandage to close up a tip instead of using superglue.
These bandages are quite flexible, they won’t get damaged by water, and they usually incorporate an antiseptic agent. My go-to method is to wrap each individual digit with tape and then add a little bit of liquid bandage on top in order to make sure that the tape sticks together. You can also use superglue with a liquid bandage if you want to be sure that everything will stay in place during the climb.
Razors and nail clippers
Since you’re going to be dealing with dead skin and loose skin a lot, it makes sense to have some sharp items at hand. Nail clippers are perfect for clipping nails, but they’re also ideal for removing flappers. Moreover, you can use a razor blade to cut down excess skin on a flapper or a split-tip in order to accelerate the healing process. Just make sure to keep these items wrapped up nicely in your kit, and don’t use a razor blade more than once, ever!
The climber tape – a rock climber’s best friend, is mandatory to include in your skincare kit. You can use it before climbing, during, or after, but it’s important to make sure you’re using a high-quality one. Ideally, your athletic tape should be as durable and as sticky as possible, as you won’t want it to come off mid-climb.
You can use climber’s tape to reinforce the areas in your digits that are prone to splits or to protect parts of your hands that are vulnerable to damage. You can also use this tape to protect your skin as it wears down during a climb.
Dealing with flappers and split tips is one thing, but it’s always better to prevent these injuries from happening in the first place. The best way to do this is to regularly sand off any snags that might form on your hands, as these are the most likely to cause issues. Invest in a proper file or some fine rolls of sandpaper and make sure to sand off any loose skin, rough edges, and bad calluses (the ones that are starting to get out of hand).
Climbing with greasy hands is not only unpleasant but also quite dangerous, so it’s always a good idea to pack some degreaser, just in case you’re having one of those days. The best choices are either hydrogen peroxide or good old alcohol. Apply either of these on your hands, rub them together, then apply some chalk and you’re good to go.
If you’re struggling to choose between these two, keep in mind that alcohol is more efficient at drying hands. It will also make your hands feel a bit hot after you apply it, as it has a tendency to enhance circulation and widen blood vessels. Nothing to worry about, but I wanted you to know what to expect.
Taking care of your hands as a climber is a constant battle, but it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. Once you get to know yourself and your skin, you’ll find that climbing skincare becomes second nature.
You’re free to experiment with different products and different techniques, just as long as you follow some simple pointers. I hope that this guide has provided some useful information on the matter and that you now know more about taking care of your skin that you did before.
If you would like to add anything from your own experience to the list, just get in touch with me and let me know your thoughts. Until then, stay safe out there, and remember to enjoy yourself!