AT SHEFFIELD CLIMBING CLINIC WE SEE PATIENTS WITH A VARIETY OF CLIMBING RELATED INJURIES. HOWEVER WE ARE OFTEN ASKED FOR ADVICE ON SKIN CARE.
Injuries can be very frustrating due to the fact they can prevent you from climbing, but bad skin can just as easily stop you in your tracks.
There are two general types of skin issues associated with climbers;
- Skin that splits, wears or cracks easily meaning it is too painful or worn to climb on
- Skin that is overly sweaty, otherwise known as hyperhidrosis, which causes you to slip off holds
These days there are a lot of different skin care products designed for climbers as well as similar products designed for other sports where use of chalk and repetitive abrasive activities are common such as crossfit and gymnastics.
It can be quite confusing to figure out which products are suitable for you. Common questions include: What skin type am I? Won’t moisturiser cause my skin to be soft? How do I prevent sweaty tips? What is antihydral?
This article hopes to clear up some of this confusion as well as provide you with tips on how to best care for your skin.
(Note – this article goes into a fair amount of detail on all things related to skin care. If you would prefer to just get some solid tips on caring for your skin then skip to the bottom and check out the ‘top tips’ section)
Let’s start by talking about the skin itself. Due to the abrasive nature of rock or indoor climbing holds, climbing causes damage to the epidermis (the outer, waterproof layer of skin). We face a constant battle of trying to heal this outer layer of skin after each session, so that it recovers in time for the next.
The reason a damaged epidermis is an issue, is because you’re damaging the waterproof barrier of the skin, meaning the skin’s ability to retain water at the surface is reduced. Water is essential in all biological processes and regeneration of the skin is no exception. Reduced moisture levels at the surface of the skin leads to reduced rates of healing.
For performance on the rock we want to keep our hands dry, hence the use of chalk.
When we climb, we’re in a continuous cycle of slightly damaging the epidermis, as well as taking away moisture and essential oils from the skin with chalk.
So basically we want to try to minimise the damage to the epidermis whilst we are climbing, then provide moisture to the skin between sessions to give it the best opportunity to heal. As well as this, we want to limit activities between sessions that further reduce moisture levels on the skin.
CONSIDER YOUR CHOICE OF CHALK.
There are mainly three types of chalk (from most drying to least drying);
- Liquid chalk – liquid chalk is a combination of chalk (magnesium carbonate) and alcohol. When in contact with the skin alcohol evaporates very quickly, leaving the chalk behind but also drawing moisture from the skin away with it.
- Chalk containing a drying agent – such as ‘metolius super chalk’ which contains chalk but also ‘a safe drying agent’ which is most likely to be a silicon based substance. Silicon gel is a commonly used drying agent in manufacturing. Most people will remember buying a product, which contains a little white packet that says ‘silica gel – throw away’ on it.
- Chalk not containing a drying agent – such as Moon Dust, which is simply 100% magnesium carbonate.
(We encourage you to buy from your local climbing and outdoor shop but if you want to find a good range you can checkout the Epic TV shop which has a lot of choice here.)
It’s common to see people using a liquid chalk base layer then chalk containing a drying agent. This will be excellent at drying out your hands but just consider if it is completely necessary due to the negative affect it can have on the skins recovery time.
Also try to break the habit of constantly chalking up/standing with your hands in your chalk bag between attempts!
USE CLIPPERS / A SANDER
Keep on top of small tears and bits of frayed skin. These can get caught on holds and cause even bigger tears. Ideally the surface of the skin should to be kept as smooth as possible. Regular nail clippers and a bit of sand paper or skin file kept in your chalk bag makes this easy to do.
USE TAPE IF NEEDED
From your skin’s perspective if you get a split or a flapper at the start of a session it would very much like you to go home, let it heal and try again next week. As climbers there’s one thing that we really don’t like - not climbing! So if you get a split or flapper but you decide you want to continue climbing then clip away any excessive skin, sand the edges and tape it up using regular climbing tape straight away.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
The tale of the undercut dyno - there’s a gritstone dyno problem at The Roaches in the Peak District, a big one-move dyno from undercut jugs, to a sloping right hand finish. Each time you pull on, you get a bit closer - but also lose a bit more skin.
A while ago I tried this problem and on the 15th attempt, I looked at my skin and thought “hmm, those tips are really pink, looks like they might go through” but decided to carry on regardless. A few attempts later I looked down and two tips were bleeding and that was the end of my session.
So try not to be stupid, like me, and know when your skin has had enough. Although that’s easier said than done.
WASH YOUR HANDS
Sounds obvious, but from personal experience it can be a good while after getting back from a climbing session before washing all the chalk and grime off my hands by the time important jobs like making a cup of tea have been done!
All this time your hands will be getting a little dryer and you’re delaying putting moisture back into the skin, which is needed to help it heal.
A common misconception is that moisturisers will make your skin soft and wet, meaning it will be more easily damaged on the rock and cause you to slip off holds. In fact they will make your skin supple, pliable and allow it to heal much faster without having any effect on how sweaty or wet your skin is.
This misconception could be attributed simply to language. ‘Moisture’ just doesn’t seem to be something you want as a climber. A better term for them would be ‘conditioners’, as climbers would be more likely to put a ‘skin conditioner’ on their hands after a session.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, water is absolutely key to the healing process, moisturisers simply increase the amount of water at the surface of the skin resulting in quicker healing times.
Moisturisers do this by the use of three key ingredients;
- Water (often written as ‘aqua’ on the ingredients list) it seems very obvious but all moisturisers will contain water
- Occlusives – substances that will hold water on the surface of the skin and prevent it from evaporating. Essential oils produced by the body normally do this job and is why most peoples skin is very slightly greasy to touch. Many moisturisers use paraffins as an occlusive, and some use beeswax as a natural alternative. These are an essential part of a moisturiser and is the reason why even ‘non greasy’ moisturisers are still slightly greasy.
- Humectants – these are substances that draw moisture from deeper layers of the skin (the dermis) as well as, in humid conditions, the air. Many moisturisers use glycerin as a humectant with some using honey as a natural alternative
Other ingredients in moisturisers will influence the smell of the product and how it feels on your skin but the key aim of them all is to get water to the surface of the skin and keep it there.
The good news is that all moisturisers, repair creams, skin salves will likely have a positive effect on the condition of your skin and the rates of healing, as they all essentially work in the same way.
For me, some are simply a lot more practical than others. For example ‘ClimbOn’ contains beeswax making it a fantastic occlusive that stays on your skin for long periods. Unfortunately this just isn’t practical when wanting to apply multiple times a day when at work.
These are however very useful if you have a split or a flapper as they stay on the wound for much longer and will sit nicely under climbing tape or a plaster. This is why Rhinoskins ‘split stick’ uses beeswax as its base ingredient.
My job involves washing my hands very often during the day (more about why that’s an issue in the next section), so I tend to apply moisturiser reasonably frequently. However for most people 2-3 times per day will be sufficient. The most important time to apply it is before bed as it gives your skin the best opportunity to maximise healing over night.
Of all the tips in this article, regularly moisturising your hands with whichever brand works for you, will likely make the biggest difference in the condition of your skin and the rate it recovers.
CONSIDER YOUR CHOICE OF SOAP
Soaps are designed to remove dirt and grease from your hands. They will also remove the essential oils, which work as an occlusive, from the surface of your skin. In turn this will dry your skin out. If you have a job where you very regularly wash your hands this can take its toll. Using a moisturising soap such as ‘Carex moisture plus’ will reduce the effect of this.
WASHING UP GLOVES
Washing up liquids are excellent at removing greasy/oily substances from pots and pans. They are also excellent at removing essential oils from the surface of your skin. Wearing a pair of washing up gloves is a really easy way to prevent this from happening.
Higher water temperature improves the efficiency of removing grease/oils from surfaces. Think about how much easier it is to do the washing up when the water is really hot. Reducing the temperature of your showers, baths and hand washing will reduce the rate at which essential oils are removed from your skin.
GLOVES IN THE WINTER
Winter means lower temperatures, but also lower humidity levels. This means that rock is grippier and why winter is gritstone season! Unfortunately for your skin, the lower humidity means less moisture levels on its surface which results in slower healing rates. Something as simple as wearing a pair of gloves when you’re out and about during the winter will reduce the adverse affect of low humidity on your precious skin.
Hydration levels will have a big effect on the amount of water available to cells throughout the body, so drinking plenty will help with the condition of the skin and its rate of healing.
Hydration as well as nutrition has a big role in the healing times of skin as well as the recovery times of all soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons and muscles. Keep an eye out for an article on this topic by our Nutritionist Ed Smith in the near future.
SWEATY TIPS AKA HYPERHIDROSIS
So far we’ve mainly spoken about how to improve the condition of skin that splits, wears or cracks easily. One of the main issues for some climbers isn’t dry skin at all; it’s the complete opposite – sweaty tips!
Sweaty tips will cause you to have less friction on the holds, and when climbing at your upper limit, it can be the difference between success and failure
Sometimes even with the use of liquid chalk, regular chalk with a drying agent and frequent chalking up, sweaty tips can still be an issue.
Over the years many climbers have resorted to using Antihydral, an extreme skin-drying agent that pro climber Daniel Woods calls ‘the secret to success’.
This Daniel Woods quote can be misleading due to the fact It has no context. It should read ‘as a pro climber who suffers from sweaty tips, I’ve found that the use of Antihydral is the only way for me to sufficiently reduce sweating in order to enable me to climb some of the hardest climbs in the world, and for that reason it’s my personal secret to success’. But that isn’t particularly catchy.
As someone who has very dry skin, it would be a terrible idea for me to use Antihydral, so don’t be tempted to think it can bring success to us all.
How does Antihydral work? Put simply, Antihydral is an antiperspirant that stops sweating in the same way as using an antiperspirant under your arms. Antihyrdal contains a substance called Methenamine, more specifically 13% Methenamine. All skin is slightly acidic and contains water, so when Methenamine comes into contact with this environment it releases formaldehyde. The formaldehyde causes the proteins in the sweat glands to denature and in turn they block the production of sweat.
The blocking of the sweat glands can last for up to two to three days, this is why Antihydral can be so effective in stopping sweaty tips. It can also, if used incorrectly, causes big problems to the skin such as severe split tips due to the dry conditions inflicted on the skin.
As there is very little information on the correct and safe use of Antihydral, it is difficult to recommend its use.
RHINOSKIN – A SAFE SOLUTION TO SWEATY TIPS?
Rhinoskin is a skincare company specifically for climbers who, as far as I am aware, is the first company to harness the effectiveness of Methenamine. They sell three antiperspirant products called Performance, Dry and Tip Juice. These contain 4%, 8% and 12% Methenamine respectively. So depending on just how sweaty your tips are you can get a much safer dose of Methenamine. Even the 12% Tip Juice is not as potent as Antihydral, due to the fact it has an aloe base whereas Antihydral has a talc base which aids Methenamine in being more effective, even though the percentage content is similar.
It’s much more difficult to give general advice on these types of products as the requirements will significantly vary from person to person. For some people they may only need these types of products when they are coming close to sending their project, and feel their sweaty tips are the difference between succeeding and failing.
Some may want to use them regularly before and during a climbing trip to improve performance for that trip. Others may find a balance to be able to use them regularly without overly drying out their tips.
This type of product is in its infancy within the climbing industry and at present is likely to be a case of individual trial and error to find out what works for you.
It is still a good idea for climbers to follow all the advice in the previous section even if using antiperspirant skin products.
TOP TIPS FOR TOP TIPS
HERE ARE THE TOP TIPS FOR CLIMBERS WITH SKIN THAT SPLITS, WEARS OR CRACKS EASILY:
- Moisturise regularly
- Wear washing up gloves
- Use non harsh soaps/shampoos when washing hands/showering
- Wash hands/shower with warm rather than very hot water
- Use chalk without a drying agent
- Wash hands thoroughly straight after climbing
- Use a sander / clippers to keep on top of rough/broken skin during and after climbing
- Know when to stop! If your skin in looking thin come back to your project another time.
- Wear gloves in the winter when out and about
- Use climbing tape on splits/flappers
TOP TIPS FOR CLIMBERS WITH OVERLY SWEATY TIPS:
Follow the same tips as above but;
- Use chalk with a drying agent
- Use a layer of liquid chalk at the start of your session
- Use a skin antiperspirant such as Rhinoskin Performance, Dry or Tip juice in a way that works for you
Hopefully this article gives you some useful tips on how to improve the quality of your skin. Everyone’s skin will be different and it’s a case of figuring out what works best for you. For me the key with skin care is consistency. I used to regularly go through tips but since sticking to a skin care regime about 6 months ago I haven’t gone through one. Good luck!