So, you have probably heard about climbing balms and might be wondering what all the fuss is about. You might want to know when is it appropriate to use the balms and what sort of effect it will have on your climbing.
When I first heard about climbing balm I shrugged it off as an unnecessary accessory.
However, the more I learned the more I thought the balms could be a useful tool if used correctly.
When is the best time to balm up?
I think one of the biggest questions for people wanting to try and take advantage of these balms is lack of information on when you should be using them.
Depending on if you’re a gym monkey, Crag chaser or Yosemite regular the answer is going to differ.
In the gym, you’re going to have the ability to wash all that chalk off your hands straight after the session. As soon as you have dried them off, you are going to want to apply your balm to lock in the moisture.
Now if you’re a rock jockey and spend your weekends on the wall wondering if Alex Honnold is a freak of nature or just really dedicated? You might have to wait before applying your balms.
Weight is a big issue when climbing, so any water you have needs to go towards hydrating you and not being wasted on cleaning the chalk off your hands.
This means you are going to want to wait until you can get to a place to wash your hands, without wasting all that precious H₂O.
Washing your hands is quite an important precursor to applying the balm as it makes the perfect base for skin repair.
The reason you want to lock in the moisture from your washed hands is due to the science behind skin repair which I will go over later.
How Balms Will Help Your Climbing
So, it’s no secret in climbing that we put our hands through a self-inflicted proving ground of misery and pain.
We often try to push our hands to the limit when trying to get that cheeky dyno or taunting sloper, usually for bragging rights.
This tends to lead to our fingers being covered in torn and flapping skin.
Before I started using balms the solution to this was to stop whining about it, tape up and get back on the wall.
But here is the interesting thing: climbing balms when used correctly can be used as a preventative measure as well as a way to speed up recovery.
The reason you get tears and rips in your hands has a bit of duality to it.
If your hands are too soft they’ll rip.
<——- The sweet spot ——->
If your calluses are too hard they’ll rip.
This may look like an impossible quest. But trust me there is a sweet spot in there.
When you have soft hands the wall makes mincemeat of them and the rough holds can be almost sandpaper-like and rip the skin.
With hard callused hands, they have a tendency to catch on holds and tear if they are too hard. This can result in some painful hand injuries.
Regardless if you have hard or soft hands, balms are still a good method to speed up recovery. However callused hands get the extra benefit of the balm softening them up. This means if it does happen to catch on a hold the resulting flapper won’t be anywhere near as big!
A balm used this way can help prevent taped hands which will mean your fingers will toughen up that much faster. Tougher fingers give you an easier time with those horrible holds and means you can spend more time climbing and less time asking your hands why they have let you down. Again.
The Science Behind Climbing Balms
So, climbers’ hands tend to be on the dryer side, and this doesn’t really provide the ideal recovery conditions for your hands.
Climbing balms work based on trying to create the ideal conditions for skin repair. They use ingredients that contain something called humectants.
Humectants are substances that are very good at attracting moisture and retaining it.
Not only are Humectants good at drawing and locking in moisture, but they are also promoting your hands to produce more ceramide.
Ceramide is a key ingredient in your top layer of skin (stratum corneum) which is your hand’s main way of protecting themselves from water loss and drying out.
So, the main humectant ingredient in climbing balms is usually beeswax (like we needed any more reasons to save the bees!)
However, there are quite a few claims out there that seem to think beeswax also has some extra properties. and that these properties make it the perfect choice for climbing balms.
The claims state that the beeswax also works as an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial aide. But I couldn’t find much evidence to back these claims up.
Now, most balm manufacturers also add additional ingredients to help the balm work more effectively and make them more appealing.
I have seen some balms with cocoa butter or shea butter added to make them similar to a moisturizer. While others add such ingredients like lavender oil or lemon oil to try and make the smell more enticing.