(last edited Feb 5th, 2021)
Besides the rubber on your favorite rock climbing shoe, the skin on your fingers is the only thing keeping you on the rock. So, why not get a little nerdy about skincare for climbers? Knowing a few tricks of the trade will help your skin endure the stress that climbing puts it through.
Everything starts with proper hand hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly before you go climbing. This gets rid of the oily particles on your skin left behind from the slice of pizza you had for lunch or such. Also, different people have different types of skin. Some are blessed with skin that stays tough, hard, and less sweaty and some not-that-happy climbers have oily and sweaty skin on their hands. I recommend using actual soap to clean your hands since they tend to get rid of the greases better.
Some climbers even go as far as rubbing the fingers with alcohol to degrease the fingers. I personally have not tried this but can see the point.
Plus, washing your hands before climbing will keep the holds cleaner too.
Clipping down the fingernails
Long nails and rock climbing don’t match. Clip down the fingernails and toenails so that there is a thin white line still visible. If leaving the nails too long, you’ll hear them scratching the holds and climbing wall when climbing. If cutting them too thin, they will become sore.
After clipping the nails, file them round from edge to edge so that there are no pointy edges that get caught on clothes or holds.
Keep your hands dry
I have sweaty hands (as you may know already). For me keeping my hands chalked and dry between climbs at the wall or outdoors is essential. If my fingertips get too damp when not climbing, they will not stay dry even when chalked up. And climbing with greasy fingers makes me slip more and use up my skin much faster compared to dry, chalked skin. Dry skin holds up better and is tougher overall. Tough skin equals better grip and friction. Simple.
Each climber is different, though. Some don’t have to chalk up before each climb and some have to chalk up multiple times during the climb. It’s a matter of what kind of skin you have and how much you tend to sweat. Adjust your chalking accordingly.
Sanding down edges of calluses, rolling of skin
Keeping your skin dry, tough, and thick is good. But having too thick skin is bad. Good climbing skin is tough, thick, and smooth. Especially smooth. Getting good climbing skin is easily achievable. All you have to do is climb. Climbing several times a week hardens the calluses to a nice, thick consistency.
But when the skin starts to get too thick or to ”roll-up”, bring on the nail clippers and sandpaper. When rolling the skin, immediately use a nail clipper to trim the edges and a nail file, skin file, or just regular fine-grained sandpaper to smooth down the edges. The edges can get caught when climbing and eventually tear. OUCH!
If there are spots of noticeably thicker skin, sand them down to prevent the skin from ripping and getting flappers. The edges of harder skin are prone to rip because they are not as elastic as the rest of the skin. So, sand those down carefully to keep climbing. Most times sanding the hardened calluses will help to avoid a flapper. But sometimes nothing helps. A flapper or split of a fingertip is dreaded by all climbers. They heal slowly and can prevent you from climbing for multiple days because of extreme soreness.
The best tactic for dealing with flappers and splits is to try avoiding them. If you notice a small rip or tear, or your skin getting too thin so that liquid oozes from the tips, it is best to stop climbing and let your skin heal. Stop while you still have skin left. After that point, the healing process takes a whole lot longer. Even one rest day can make a difference.
Dealing with Split Tips and Flappers
When exploring the limits of your skin, rips, splits, and flappers are inevitable. Everybody hates them, but everybody gets them at some point. They are a part of climbing, like it or not. Proper care of flappers will shorten the healing process and get you climbing at your max faster.
When the dreaded flapper happens, wash your hands and clip the flap off with a nail clipper. Trim down the edges best you can with nail clippers or even an old fashioned razor blade and sandpaper. Apply antibacterial ointment to the injury and place a band-aid. If you have to keep climbing (say, if on a climbing trip), tape it up properly. Keep in mind that every additional tear lengthens the healing process.
Dealing with split tips is mostly the same process. Clean the wound and trim the edges. A liquid band-aid works best for split fingertips. Some climbers even apply super glue to the split to keep climbing. I’m not a big fan of this though. Think of all the chemicals and toxins that super glue is made of. Applying these to an open wound makes me shiver.
Again, apply antibacterial lotion and place a band-aid to keep dirt out of the wound. Tape up if you must keep climbing. Best to stop, though. You make the decision.
Taping is a good way to protect the skin for serious redpoint burns on burly projects with sharp holds and to protect already broken skin (flappers, splits) from further damage. It is also commonly used when dealing with finger injuries, but I will not get into that with this article.
Taping the fingertips is a good way to keep the skin in good condition when rehearsing the moves on a climb. Sharp holds can wreck the skin after only a few tries. When going for the redpoint, off goes the tape, and up goes the friction between the skin and the rock. No use trashing your skin before the actual attempt.
When climbing with a split-tip or a flapper, taping is essential. You don’t want to bleed all over the holds. It’s not good for the friction and it is not good climbing etiquette. In fact, it’s pretty gross. No one wants to grab a hold with blood on it. It’s just disgusting.
Taping is usually done with standard unelastic sports tape or special climbing tape. Either one works just fine. Every climber has their own favorite. When taping a finger to preserve the skin, a thin strip of tape works better. It commonly lets the finger flex a bit more and stays on better. You may have to retape after a few tries but what wouldn’t a climber do to preserve their most valuable asset, the skin? For more info on taping, read my article Taping fingers for climbing.
Different skin for different types of rock
Different types of rock require different properties from the skin. For example, climbing on sandstone doesn’t require as thick skin as granite does. For granite, your skin needs to be thick and hard to endure the strain the sharp holds and rough texture puts it through. Climbing with thick skin on sandstone (like Fontainebleau) can result in low friction due to the hardness of the skin. Grit and sandstone climbers have softer skin that adapts to the naturally fine texture of the rock. Sharper holds means thicker skin, smoother rock equals smoother skin. Easy to remember.
So, what is the best way to get the skin that the rock type requires? It’s actually really simple. Just climb as much outdoors as possible. Your skin will adapt to the rock type quite easily. Climbing on granite for a few weeks will make your skin tough, 100% guaranteed.
If going on a rock climbing trip to a new area with new rock, try to mimic the stress on the skin i.e. sanding the skin down after a session and letting it eventually grow thicker. Climbing indoors a lot is a good start for good climbing skin. But if you want good climbing skin for outdoor climbing, it’s best to climb outdoors.
Use a skincare product
Most climbers are real skin geeks. Some more than others. I’ve heard of climbers who shower with plastic bags or gloves over their hands so the fingers stay dry. Some don’t do the dishes before a big climbing day in fear of the skin getting wet and soft. Some don’t use any kind of lotion on the hands for the fear of skin getting soft. I personally think this is nonsense.
For me maintaining good climbing skin is all about keeping the skin healthy and elastic. If the skin gets too dry, it loses its elastic properties and can tear more easily. This is why proper hydration of the skin is essential.
Using skin moisturizer after a big climbing day is a good way to jump-start the healing process of the skin. There are many balms and salves out there that are specifically designed for climbers. Climb On, ClimbSkin and Tip juice are good products just to name a few. You can even make your own if you like.
Some products can feel a little greasy, so it is best to apply them just before going to bed and let them do their magic while you sleep. I would NOT apply a skin product just before going climbing. Greasy hands tend to have less friction. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly before the next session.
And for the part of not getting the hands wet…Total nonsense. I’m a professional chef and have been for many years. I wash my hands more on one day of work than most people in a whole week. Some shifts my tips become white and wrinkly from having them wet all the time. Just like when taking a long, hot bath. You know what I’m talking about.
Nevertheless, I can go climbing indoors or outdoors straight from work. And maintain good, tough fingertips. Getting the hands wet is not a problem. Trust me.