Climbers with bad skin—be it sweaty and soft, or dry and glassy—need this.
I used to compete. Along with a group of itinerant climbers, I’d spend my summers around Europe training and participating in Lead World Cups. Between events, I practiced in Slovenia with the national team and under the tutelage of Roman Krajnik, a tough but brilliant coach with a knack for vulcanizing young athletes into world-class machines. Although a small country—Slovenia is the size of New Jersey—the place is home to some of the world’s best, including Janja Garnbret, indisputably the most dominant comp climber ever.
Slovenia, according to me, is known for the aforementioned indomitable athletes and one other thing—don’t try to guess. Well, OK, it’s bees. A quick Google search will confirm, although it became apparent to me after noticing that bee-product stands were as ubiquitous on the streets of Ljubljana as Starbucks are in the States. Plus, on a rest day, I paid a visit to the local bee museum (yep, they have that).
As for the Slovenia climbing superstars, a natural question arises: How does a tiny country manufacture so many elite athletes? Magic, perhaps. Definitely hard work. And Krajnik likely has something to do with it, too. Our training sessions were long, brutal, demoralizing fights that left my muscles feeble and feckless soul feeling like it was left out in the sun a little too long, sere and withered. Also, my skin would hurt from the sheer volume of climbing we were doing.
So, how did the Slovenians take care of their mitts in order to keep on cranking? What was their “secret sauce”?
The Antidote to Hammered Skin: Propolis
For my skin, which had worn raw, Krajnik offered this merciful antidote: propolis. That brings us back to the bees. Propolis is a curry of bee and plant compounds—namely resin, pollen, wax, essential oils, etc. Bees produce and use it as the “mortar” in their hives. Humans have been using it for centuries: the Incas as a fever-reducing agent, the Greeks and Romans as a mouth disinfectant and to treat wounds. The Soviets used it in WWII to treat tuberculosis.
Today, the brown, sticky substance has myriad known uses, including for treating colds, wounds, burns, and acne, preventing gingivitis and stomatitis, and more. It’s antiviral, antimicrobial, and an antioxidant. According to one MD interviewed by Shape, it contains over 300 active compounds, many of which are useful for fortifying and protecting cell walls.
After I limped my way to a local drugstore in Ljubljana, it didn’t take long to find a vial. Propolis is sold in everything from tinctures, capsules, and sprays, to toothpaste and beauty products. I went for the cheapest option, a tincture with the substance dissolved in alcohol at a 50-percent concentration.
Two warnings here: One, alcohol burns on flappers…obviously. They do sell propolis in tinctures minus the alcohol, but honestly, I’ve yet to try that version. And two, because it’s a resin, no one should ever use propolis before climbing. It’ll gunk up the holds and ruin rock. The best time to use it is after climbing, ideally at night so it gets maximally absorbed. Just drop a few drops of tincture on one palm, and then rub your hands together to spread it around. Again, I have yet to try the “throat sprays,” but I imagine a few squirts onto your tips would be just as effective as the tincture.
Propolis Absolutely Works!
With those notes out of the way, I can say without a doubt that propolis is the most effective skin-healing remedy I’ve tried to date. It actually blows my mind that more people don’t know about it. Evidently the Slovenian team uses it, and I have no idea why the rest of the world has yet to catch on.
Propolis has a distinct medicinal smell. I like it. And at about $15–20 a vial, which will last forever, it’s very affordable. I wouldn’t recommend going above 50-percent concentration; higher concentrations are stickier and they’ll dye your skin a yellow-brown color, which is difficult to remove.
Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I found propolis to be helpful from day one. It feels like your skin has a protective layer on it, allowing the dermis to heal underneath. The internet says it makes skin healthier with chronic usage. I’m a sample size of one, but I can confirm that my skin is generally in excellent condition, and I’ve been using the stuff for years now.
Good athletes and bees—I’d call that an interesting correlation, if there ever was one.