Skin Care For Climbers: How to Deal with Flappers, Split Tips, & More

I’ve spent a lot of time with some pretty damn good climbers.

Like the type of good where someone has decided you should have money for doing it…because you’re very good at it.

Naturally, as I spend time with these very very good climbers I can’t help but wonder, what makes them so good? What are they doing differently than me?

Something I was surprised to learn is that a large percentage of these climbers either have naturally amazing skin or spend a LOT of their time thinking about maintaining it. I know a few guys who, if you ask the question “How is climbing going?”, genuinely the FIRST thing they will do is look down at their hands and assess their skin.

Your skin actually makes a pretty big difference in climbing.

In all of my personal climbing experience, I’ve learnt that it almost always makes more of a difference than you expect.

So how do we maintain our skin for climbing?

One of the first things to come to terms with in this topic is that skin and conditions are inherently tied. If you’re climbing in bad conditions, you’re going to have worse skin.

This goes for how much friction you’re going to get and for how quickly you’re skin will get trashed.

Obviously different types of skin will have varying resilience to different conditions but this concept is pretty absolute in climbing.

It goes from some climbers attributing their sends to timing with a breeze:

Felt so refreshing to take a break from developing new areas! It's been just about 3 months of opening new bouldering areas here in Rocklands for me. As much as I love it, it's hard labor much more so than actual climbing – endless hiking, establishing trails, building landings, rapping down boulders, brushing rocks. At the end of the day you usually get rewarded with something to climb on. For a much needed break we ventured out to the Cape Winelands district with @shawnraboutou to get on @jwebxl's Khoi Khoi (V15). Khoi Khoi sits solo a ways from anywhere else but man is it worth the trip! A little piece of orange Fontainebleau! Slopers and precise body positions – and heavily reliant of getting the right conditions. The first round we got dealt the worst hand with the weather. But it worked out alright for fine-tuning our beta. The confidence was there but conditions shut down any real attempts. A few days later we were back for some more. Well into the session, precisely one minute before sundown I managed to catch a nice breeze and found myself at the mantle! However I looked down and my spotters were nowhere to be found. With no one spotting, it was unsafe to do the last move and I had to drop down. I was gutted having just climbed a really hard, highly friction dependent climb. And I never made it back to the top again that day. Pretty classic bouldering moment right there. So back to it the next day again. Luckily this boulder is such a pleasure to climb on, because motivation to repeat it again hoping someone will be spotting this time was not at an all-time high. Many attempts and many slips later it started getting more frustrating. Finally I lucked out and timed my try perfectly with a solid 30 second breeze. The opportunity was there and I took it to the top! Makes it that much more special when you can't just muscle it out but have to roll the dice and have it all click at once. Later that day @shawnraboutou followed with an impressive ascent as well! 5-stars for this piece of rock! Thanks for the picture and motivation @arjandekock! #liveclimbrepeat #bouldering @blackdiamond @lasportivagram

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To simple numbers that can’t be argued with. As you can see from this article where we crunched the number of hard boulder sends per month, people don’t get up hard boulders in the summer.

Conditions

Step one to maintaining your skin is to work with the conditions and the main thing to avoid is humidity!

Humidity will mean more moisture in the air, which means more moisture on the boulder and more moisture sweating its way out of your fingertips.

Just general temperature can also cause this but there are areas where the heat is very dry and you sweat much less than you’d expect.

So the first thing to look for is how hot and humid the day is. If the weather is particularly humid then it might be a bit wiser for you to wait for a better day to try your project.

On top of this, you can look for things that will reduce humidity. This includes cold and wind. A particularly cold and windy day might be one of the best chances you get to climb your hardest.

Rest

Next step in managing your skin is to not overdo it. Your skin will get warmer and more prone to tear with each attempt on a boulder and so it does make a difference to give your hands some time to cool back down. Even if your muscles feel fine!

After a while of climbing, you can come to have an awareness of how hot your skin is. This is a very useful thing to learn personally as everyone’s skin will react totally differently and you may find that on some days you need way more rest than others.

You also know that rest days are an important part of any climbing trip. You might be surprised to learn that many high-level climbers don’t normally take rest days to recover muscles. It’s actually more often to recover skin!

So next time you’re on a trip and you’re feeling stronger than you’ve ever been but you happen to have a hole in one of your tips…maybe it actually is a good idea to have an extra rest day.

Flappers

Now we’re down to the more practical side of skin care. What to do after you’ve done gone and wrecked your finger.

First up is the famous flapper. A well-known result of trying a dyno one too many times.

I flapped hard today 😭🙃🧗‍♀️ #flapper ft. @mavericklam__

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But it’s not always limited to this. All though less likely, you can achieve a flapper on most types of movements and holds.

Often flappers occur because the callus on the pad becomes too thick relative to the skin on the sides of your finger.

You can even sometimes feel the callus become pushed up towards the joint after putting some big forces through some big holds. You’re entering flapper territory.

It can be helpful to sand down your callused pads before climbing but sometimes this isn’t even enough. Flappers can come from anywhere.

So what do you do once you’ve got one?

Time and time again I hear the old “Tape it back down and it will reattach.”

I’ve tried this quite a few times and I’ve spoken to many people who’ve also tried it.

Unfortunately, it’s never worked.

Either it doesn’t reattach at all or it attaches for a couple of days only to change it’s mind and flop back off.

Maybe you’re part axolotl and your skin happily sticks back on but during this reattaching period the area becomes delicate and moist. Not ideal conditions for climbing on, especially if you’re coming towards the end of a trip and need every climbing day you can get.

From my experience, the best thing to do with a flapper is to cut it off with nail clippers or scissors…or teeth if you’re a proper dirtbag like me. Make sure to cut it as far down as possible to reduce any chance of further tearing.

If you intend on climbing more that day then tape it up and go but once you’re done, take the tape OFF. Letting the air at your wound is one of the best things you can do speed up recovery.

Letting the air at it will dry it out and that’s what you want for flappers like these. I find that often I can climb on it again even when the wound is only halfway healed because it’s so dry — it doesn’t hurt or get torn further.

Not all flappers appear the same though. Check out this little baby flapper which may appear different but actually needs to be dealt with in the same way.

Frayed skin

Sometimes you’ll pop off a climb and browse down to see your skin looking like this.

Nothing too dramatic, it’ll be fine eh?

Well actually, tears in your skin like these are points of weakness for further tearing. Not only is this going to increase your chance of wrecking your skin but tearing occurring while on a climb is a loss of that precious friction.

Here you want to get yourself a nice file, pumice stone, or piece of sandpaper and try to file this away so your skin is nice and uniform again.

Don’t go overboard but also don’t worry about your skin becoming too thin. I’ve consistently found that uniform skin is better than slightly thicker skin with flakes or tears.

Many climbing companies make files for looking after your skin in situations like this. Usually, you have to try a few to find a grit that works best for you.

Also, remember that your skin will thicken after regularly climbing outside. After some longer climbing trips, even the most coarse files might not be enough. I end up finding a toolkit and stealing sandpaper from it.

Here’s another example of a little skin hiccup that you should take care of in the same way before it gets worse.

Split tip

A split tip can be a climber’s nightmare.

Sometimes splits are the result of repeatedly using a specific hold and they heal up after a couple of days.

On the other hand, sometimes there is something else going on and they can hang around for weeks! Not fun!

If your split hasn’t healed as fast as you feel it should have or it’s appeared out of apparently nowhere then it’s likely you’re dealing with this second type of split.

The problem here is that your skin is too dry in that area. The solution is to file it down as far as you can and moisturize the hell out of it.

Splits are when the layers of skin pull apart. When filing down, you want to remove these pulled apart layers entirely so that there is only the unbroken layer of skin below.

Now, in all honesty, filing all the way down is a bit much. Even the steeliest of you out there are probably going to do an awful lot of flinching so realistically, just get it as far down as you sanely can.

Once this is done, you’ve got to moisturize…a lot. How much you moisturize is totally up to you but I personally try to keep some sort of cream on splits at all times for the first day or two.

There are also many theories about which moisturising creams work best. I tend to go by the rule that if there are multiple theories or solutions to a biological problem then it’s probably because they either both work or different ones work for different people.

I will usually go with an E45 cream or some aloe vera moisturizer when looking to sort out a split tip but I won’t say that one will work better than the other. You’ll have to figure out which works best for your skin.

Plain old worn skin

Your options here are suddenly much more limited.

They are also much more specific to the individual. For the majority of people, moisturizing will work well and again, the best cream to use is something you’ll have to find out.

What I can tell you is that if you find a certain cream that works best for worn skin, it will probably also be your best bet for dealing with a split tip.

There are some people for whom moisturising might not be the best option though. Some people’s skin will grow back significantly softer after moisturizing and it all wears straight off before they’ve even finished their first session back.

Again, something to figure out for yourself. There are other, more complicated options for people who experience this.

Methylated Spirits

These will absorb oil which will dry your skin out. If you’re feeling desperate then they can be a good way of speeding up your recovery from a flapper…it’s gonna hurt though.

When dealing with thin skin, it’s important to remember that the oils in the area are an essential ingredient in the recovery process. You should only look into using methylated spirits if there’s too much oil and your skin is growing back too soft.

I have heard of people combining methylated spirits with moisturizer to try balance things out. As you can see, it starts to get complicated.

Antihydral cream

I’m going to list some facts about antihydral. I’m not saying you should use it and I’m not saying you shouldn’t.

For some climbers, antihydral works wonders. For others, it can be one of the worst things you can do.

Antihydral dries your skin out significantly. It also makes skin exceptionally thick to the point where it becomes glassy and people have to sand their tips before even climbing.

For someone with super sweaty skin, it can literally bump their climbing up a few grades. But I also know people who’ve put antihydral on for 15 minutes and then had such a bad split tip it didn’t heal for 2 months.

The range of reactions is so wide here, there’s absolutely no guarantee of how you will fare. People’s descriptions of applying antihydral ranges from washing it off after 15 minutes, to leaving it on overnight.

If you are to try it, I do recommend putting it on 2 days before climbing as this is how long it can take to see the full effects.

Disclaimer

I have come across people worried about the health effects of antihydral cream.

The active ingredient methanamine is used in medicine to treat various infections and antihydral cream itself is prescribed to people suffering from hyperhydrosis.

I won’t get into the biology of it here and I wont tell you who’s wrong or right in this debate. All I will say is to do your own research beforehand if you have any worries.