Skincare For Climbers, Part 1/4 : The Knowledge
I want to let you in on a crucial idea we discovered while developing our skincare products. We call it “The Knowledge” because once you understand it, it starts to guide how you take care of your finger skin for climbing. It’s a pretty simple idea, really. Not all skin is crated equally but there’s just two things you need to understand about your skin to maximise friction.
Because most climbers don’t understand these two factors they simply look at what other, often stronger, climbers do & copy whatever they see. But what works for top climbers may actually be bad for you. There simply is so much variability in finger skin.
Some people sweat like pigs, others not so much. Some have super sensitive skin where the smallest cut seems to get infected. Some have extra dry skin while others seem to simply grease off the holds because their skin is so oily. Some need tons of chalk while others only need a tiny little bit. Some climbers have turned gauging temperature, humidity & wind factors into an exact science.
To escape the trap of copy/pasting, we need to build up our own mental model around skincare. That’s what we call “The Knowledge”. A simplified model of what makes your fingers stick to the rock. We’re going to discard external factors like temperature & humidity in our model because we only want to keep it practical and actionable.
We’re also going to exclude callus buildup from our model/ While thick, callused fingers may seem desirable for beginners, experienced climbers will tell you that callus comes naturally. In fact, callus needs to be maintained, smoothed, sanded down. It’s often more a pain than an asset. Our skin has an amazing capacity to adapt to the environment it’s exposed to. The best way to build the right skin for the kind of rock you will be climbing is simply to climb a lot on that type of surface.
With that out of the way, the knowledge is this: there’s just two things you need to know about your skin to start optimising it for climbing performance. And you can start to understand these two factors by asking yourself two simple questions. “How oily is my skin?” and “How sweaty is my skin?” Most climbers understand that excess sweat is bad for performance, so let’s start with the other one.
“How oily is my skin?” Our skin produces natural oils which play a crucial rule in inhibiting bacterial growth on the skin and helps us condition our hair and skin. These oils are beneficial, even for climbers: they help keep our skin supple & strong. But the oil also makes us grease off holds while climbing. Some people have oily skin & some people have dry skin. What is yours like? Depending on your skin type you will want to use different types of chalk and skincare products. E.g. People with oily skin will need less moisturiser and may prefer liquid chalk over chalk powder. We look in detail at some of the skincare tactics for this skin type in some of the other articles in the series.
“How sweaty is my skin?” This factor is the elephant in the room: every climber seems to have an opinion on this one. It’s clear that sweaty hands can be a serious disadvantage & climbers have tried all kinds of coping mechanism to reduce the sweatiness of their fingers. We started using climbing chalk specifically to deal with this issue and some desperately sweaty climbers go as far as electrocuting their skin to reduce sweat production. We know there’s variability among climbers and in the general population about 5% suffer from a medical condition called “hyperhidrosis” or excessive sweating. There’s a large genetic component to how much we sweat but the good news is we have decent tools to fight excess sweat for average climbers who don’t suffer from hyperhidrosis. So what is your skin type? Do you sweat a lot or a little compare to your friends?
Now that you have answered these two questions about your finger skin we can classify you in 4 categories. In the follow-up articles in this series we’ll use these to give you some advice on what to do before, during and after climbing to maximise your skin performance. Here’s a recap, where to you belong?
Non-Oily + Non-Sweaty. Congrats. You won the climbing lottery! Right? Maybe. At first sight, yes, having dry skin without sweat may seem to be the holy grail of climbing skincare. But a deeper look reveals some drawbacks. The dryness will make your skin more prone to tearing and you may be more susceptible to infections in cuts & scrapes, resulting in slower skin recovery time.
Oily + Non-Sweaty. We think this actually is the sweet spot for climbers. There’s a simple trick to take care of the oil while climbing which we’ll reveal in one of the follow-up articles. You won’t need a lot of chalk, which is a plus, and your skin will tend to be relatively strong and elastic. This is by far the easiest skin type to manage.
Non-Oily + Sweaty. While this one may seem better than the “Oily+Sweaty” type it’s still a pain to manage. You’ll need to make sure you moisturise plenty after climbing even though your hands feel sweaty while climbing, which is super counter-intuitive. Just like all sweaty skin types you’ll want to experiment with different kinds of chalks and maybe some of the more extreme ways of managing sweat.
Oily + Sweaty. I’m so sorry for you. Have you considered picking up another sport like bowling? Just kidding. Even for sweaty skin types there are good ways to manage, it just takes a bit more attention. Even for the extreme cases there are remedies like Iontophoresis and Methenamine. But 90% of climbers don’t fall in this category and don’t need to fo this far.
With this knowledge you’re now ready to read on & learn what you can do to optimise your skin before, during & after climbing.