Say No to Beeswax!
If you're a climber then chances are you've seen hand creams or balms on display at your favorite gym or equipment store. They guarantee results, better sends and less flappers. Almost all of them use beeswax. Why?
While most balms targeted towards climbers contain beeswax, many consumers assume that it's because it is helpful to the process. Indeed, beeswax is moisturizing and contains healthy vitamins. However, there is a lack of understanding as to how it provides moisture, a crucial reason why most climbers would not want to use beeswax on their hands: beeswax is a humectant that doesn't abosrb.
Back in the day, the secret to tougher hands was simple, climb more and keep your hands dry. While this holds much value, many of climbing elite, especially trad climbers, had to come up with new solutions to prevent flappers and splitters as they became more inevitable with harder routes. Sanding and soaking the hands overnight with petroleum jelly or beeswax was key to preventing sore fingers the next day. Again, both of these methods hold much value.
Sanding is essential to proper finger shape and friction. Using sandpaper or a sanding sponge to smooth out rough spots and unnecessary growth spots is key to preventing flappers. Splitters tend to be a little different in that they are caused by high stress in consistently dry fingers. Moisturizing after a climb and during off days will help prevent these issues. Uneven callus growth can still cause splitters so be sure to keep an eye on the shape of your fingers during off days.
Soaking the hands with petroleum jelly or beeswax overnight, however, needs more discussion. Soaking the hands overnight can be a great solution to sore hands, especially after multi-pitch crack climbs. The entire hands become bruised and scraped by the end of a hard day of sending. However, one must consider the flip-side of the coin when dealing with soaking overnight. Neither petroleum jelly or beeswax absorb into the skin, so it can't be metabolized. Petroleum jelly is also an occlusive which prevents the process of evaporation, retaining water in the the skin. This can be great for people with extremely dry skin or overly scraped hands and fingers. However, be careful as to what else may be on your skin before hand. Wash your hands with a simple hand soap to remove any excess oils before applying. Be aware of what other products you apply as well, coating the skin with petroleum jelly locks them in which may lead to softened skin.
Beeswax however, not only doesn't absorb into the skin, it also is a humectant which draws moisture out of the air and directs it to the skin. This, in effect, consistently draws moisture to the skin while simultaneously trapping it in. This will lead to softer skin, same as soaking in the hot tub. Furthermore, this is what causes the greasy feeling afterwards that everyone hates. Not all humectants should be avoided as a climber, in fact, there are many used in moisturizers that re great for the skin but beeswax is one to avoid. Would you fill a couple rubber gloves with water, put them on, and tape them at the wrists? I hope not!
So is there a solution? Absolutely. Other waxes may be used that have almost the same properties as beeswax. Both cadellila wax and carnauba wax are great alternatives to beeswax that a climber should be on the lookout for. They are plant based waxes that are actually harder than beeswax. They both condition and moisturize the skin while absorbing. This draws moisture to the skin but doesn't trap it. Keep an eye out for the other oils or butter that are present in the product you are considering. A quick internet search will tell you how fast they absorb or any other concerns you may have.
Schulte, C. (2016). Ultimate Rock Climbing Skin Care Handbook. Retrieved from: https://www.climbing.com/skills/ultimate-skin-care-handbook
Unknown. (2008). Making the Choice. Retrieved from: https://www.the-dermatologist.com/article/2766
What You Need to Know. http://www.vaseline.us/faq.html
Bogdanov, S. (2009). Beeswax: Production, Properties, Composition, and Control. Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.567.4441&rep=rep1&type=pdf