We Tested the 6 Best Climbing Balms & Salves by Destroying Our Skin
|Climbing Balm, Salve, or Cream||Score||Size||Style|
|Top Pick: ClimbOn Original Bar||
|Best for Soft Skin & Gym Climbing: ClimbSkin Hand Cream||
|Giddy Healing Hand Balm||
|Joshua Tree Climbing Salve||
|Metolius Hand Repair Balm||
|Budget Buy: O’Keeffe’s Working Hands Hand Cream||
We rounded up our favorite six climbing skin-repair remedies and set about destroying our hands for a month to declare an overall winner: the ClimbOn Original Bar.
Truth be told, this was a difficult test — skin recovery is hard to track precisely. Ultimately we felt that ClimbOn produced the most reliable recovery in the most desirable and convenient package.
A surprising amount of dirt-slinging happens in climbing salve marketing. Most of these salves claim to be THE salve for climbers and athletes. Wax-based formulas claim that lotions and creams soften skin too much, while the creams claim that waxes lock out moisture and prevent recovery. Who’s telling the truth?
The good news is this:
None of the salves were terrible, and all of them helped a little. More good news: over the month of testing we learned that a) good skin care does make a difference, but b) it’s not a huge one.
Being consistent about applying salve does help, but it’s not life or death — your skin will heal regardless, and many climbing skin care habits (taking care of callouses, letting skin heal) are common sense and don’t cost a dime.
The salves did differ plenty in effectiveness, feel, and of course, price. For the details, read on.
Top Pick: ClimbOn Original Bar
ClimbOn is one of the more well-known climbing salve brands, and it turns out the respect is warranted.
For starters, ClimbOn is intuitive and handy to apply. The bar is solid, but after warming up in the hand it creates a nice layer of balm on the skin.
It’s neither oily nor obtrusive, and it stays on without getting in the way. The ingredients are plant-based and food-grade, which is important for some customers.
And as a bonus, the ClimbOn bar is one of the best smelling of the bunch.
Recovery-wise, the ClimbOn seemed to produce the most reliable healing. I personally care most about performance outdoors, which means that I like my tips to be ready for a beating. The ClimbOn heals without softening much, which is helpful for maintaining a solid layer of durable skin.
ClimbOn isn’t the cheapest product we tested, but it’s far from the most expensive, and it’s in the ballpark of most salves we tested. It helps that you don’t have to use too much — the bar feels like it will last quite a while.
For the money, we think ClimbOn is the best salve for most climbers.
SKINourishment, the company behind the ClimbOn Original Bar, is also a leader in social responsibility. They’re a ceritified B Corp. Their products are cruelty-free according to PETA, meaning they aren’t tested on animals. And the ClimbOn bar is made of 100% plant-based ingredients.
Best for Soft Skin & Gym Climbing: ClimbSkin Hand Cream
ClimbSkin is another aggressively marketed product courtesy of our friends at FrictionLabs (who sell in the USA for the Spain-based ClimbSkin).
It claims to be “engineered for climbers, by climbers.”
Just like FrictionLabs chalk, it’s a well-designed and effective product. And just like the chalk, it comes at a shocking price.
Let’s start with the good:
The ClimbSkin was the most pleasant to handle of any product in our test. It’s a soft tan cream that’s slightly cool to the touch, and it feels lovely on the skin.
It soaks in almost immediately, without any trace of oils or stickiness. It left my skin feeling soft and refreshed, and it was a joy to use.
It did help skin heal, but the result was softer than skin treated by products like the ClimbOn and Giddy balms. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — some competition climbers soften their skin for better grip on plastic, and some climbers (understandably) prefer a hand that isn’t stiff and leathery.
The ClimbSkin would likely work well in these scenarios. Plus, if you’re climbing in the gym all the time, it is excellent relief for dry and chalk-encrusted hands.
The ClimbSkin does disappear a little faster than bar-style balms, and it’s not helped by instructions to apply 1-2 hours before climbing as well as immediately after. If you do so before and after every session, you’ll be out of cream quicker than you’d like.
And that’s a bummer, because the ClimbSkin is far and away the most expensive product in our test. Per ounce, it costs around double most of the other products we tested.
Yes, it’s a premium product, and it’s coming from Spain, but it’s a steep price to pay for an ounce of balm.
Is it worth it?
The answer depends on how much you value your dollar and your fingertips. The ClimbSkin is a strong performer that feels wonderful on the skin, but other contenders won’t take such big bites out of your wallet.
It’s also worth mentioning ClimbSkin’s ingredients. Some such as phenoxyethanol have moderate health concerns. If you’re concerned about the ingredients in your climbing balm, we recommend one with a cleaner label such as our top pick, the ClimbOn Original Bar.
Budget Buy: O’Keeffe’s Working Hands Hand Cream
O’Keeffe’s earns a mention here not so much out of performance — it was the weakest performing salve in our test — as for being drastically cheaper (per ounce) than any other salve we tested.
O’Keeffe’s is the other cream-style product we tested, and it’s also the least climbing-oriented (or marketed) of the six.
It does help healing a little, and it’s pleasant to use and apply. It felt the most like a conventional hand lotion, and it has the least recognizable ingredients list of the lot.
None of these are terrible attributes, and in general the O’Keeffe’s cream was pleasant if uninspiring.
What O’Keeffe’s does have going for it is price.
For about the same price as most of the salves in our test, you get about six times the volume. If you’re a frequent user, that adds up. And unless you’re pretty meticulous about your skin care, the difference between our best and worst performers isn’t drastic.
If all you need is a cream to help your hands feel normal after frequent gym sessions, O’Keeffe’s will get the job done just fine, and it won’t break the bank.
Reviews of the 3 Other Climbing Salves We Tested
The Giddy balm was a pleasant surprise and a strong performer. It missed out on an award only because of the prowess of the ClimbOn bar.
The Giddy product is similar: a hard bar that warms in the hand and leaves a coat. It uses Carnauba wax as well as beeswax, but the rest of the ingredients are a familiar blend of essential oils and vitamins.
The Cedar Mint scent we tested smells pleasantly of mint, and the low-profile case is easy to toss in any pocket.
Also like the ClimbOn, the Giddy bar produced slightly harder skin on healing. It wasn’t quite as consistent as the ClimbOn, but it was a respectable performer in almost all cases. It’s also the second cheapest option in our test, though not by a huge amount.
Giddy didn’t outshine the other products enough to earn our highest scores, but it was still a favorite among testers.
Going into this test, I had the JTree salve pegged as a top seed.
Unfortunately, the salve failed to live up to expectations — it yielded decent but unremarkable healing.
The ingredients list is short and pleasant, and the salve smells gently herbal, but it reminded some testers too much of Burt’s Bees Hand Salve.
To make matters worse, the oily residue means that it’s impossible to do anything else for about 10 minutes after application. Unless you have the time to sit and wait for your hands to dry, this is a pain.
The Joshua Tree isn’t exorbitantly priced, but it’s still the second most expensive salve in our test. It’s a decent performer, but the compromises are too great for us to wholeheartedly recommend it.
Satisfactory but undistinguished, the Metolius balm didn’t do much to either offend or inspire.
Like the Joshua Tree, it’s a soft solid that sits in a tin and allows a fingertip or two to be dipped in at a time. It smells pleasantly citrus-y and it’s easy to apply.
It suffered in our scoring because it failed to produce consistent healing. For a climbing balm, the Metolius was the least effective after the O’Keeffe’s cream.
Again, these are differences of degree, but if you’re going to buy a salve, there are better options.
How to Choose the Best Climbing Salve for Your Needs
Buying a climbing salve comes down to three fundamental questions: what kind of ingredients do you want it to have, what do you need it for, and how much can you pay?
Not all climbing salves are created equal in terms of ingredients.
Some balms such as the ClimbOn Original Bar, our top pick, contain 100% plant-based ingredients. Others such as ClimbSkin, our pick for soft skin and gym climbing, contain ingredients with moderate health concerns.
If you care about the ingredients in your balm, we recommend using EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database to research the ingredients in the balms you’re considering before buying.
Tip Care vs. General Care
If your salve needs are mostly for general skin restoration, you may not need to invest in a fancy climbing-specific salve.
Climbing salves are best for restoring fingertips, especially after extreme abuse. They can be helpful, but many climbers get by well without them — don’t worry if you don’t use one.
Hard Skin vs. Soft Skin
If you prefer your skin on the harder side, our testing showed that wax-based salves will be more effective. If you prefer softer skin, choose one of the creams.
In the scheme of climbing purchases, salve isn’t too expensive. On the other hand, it may not be an area worth splurging on.
Most of the options here are relatively affordable and will last a while — choose one that makes sense for your budget.
How We Tested
As I mentioned above, finding consistency wasn’t easy in this test. To make matters more difficult, the more I used the salves the harder it was to wear down my skin for testing. If you ever want an incentive to train all the time, salve testing is a good last resort.
I did everything I could to lose skin — long sessions in the gym, cold days on outdoor rock, and quality time with the basement hangboard.
To be as consistent as possible, I started with head-to-head testing between various salves. After a given session or two of climbing, I would apply one salve to each hand (after the session and before bed) and look for differences.
Whenever possible, these results were corroborated by a fellow tester who would apply the same two salves (reversing which was on the dominant/non-dominant hand). It turns out to be hard to convince someone to spend a month and a half talking about hand salves, so I enlisted a rotating crew of testers.
To close things off, I did a few rounds of testing where I applied one salve each to six individual fingers and noted the results.
Salves were scored on three categories:
How well did my skin heal using the salve? Did it make a substantial difference? What were the characteristics of healed skin?
Because this is the primary function of the salves, this category was weighted most heavily in scoring.
How does the salve feel on the skin? How pleasant is it to touch and use? How much do I want to use it?
Application & Convenience
How easy is the salve to apply? How convenient is it to carry and use? Does the salve make it hard to carry out other tasks?