Caring For Your Fingertips

How do I heal cracked fingertips? How do I prevent them from cracking in the first place?

By Rock and Ice | December 1st, 2010

How do I heal cracked fingertips? How do I prevent them from cracking in the first place? [Photo: Hayden Carpenter]How do I heal cracked fingertips? How do I prevent them from cracking in the first place?

If you peeled off all of your skin and put it in a cardboard box, it would weigh 22.5 pounds, or 15 percent of your body weight (assuming you weigh 150 pounds). Compare this to your brain, which, depending on how much you drink, would weigh just two or three pounds, or your liver, which weighs four to five pounds. Skin is your body’s largest organ, yet most climbers treat their rain jackets better than their own outer sheathing. You could go to school for years and study about the care and feeding of your skin, or you can keep reading.

Your skin reflects what is going on inside your body. Split and bleeding fingertips reveal a soul tortured by failed projects on which you throw yourself again and again, like a dervish on a road paved with broken glass. For this there is no prescription.

Fortunately, skin, unlike your soul, is self-regenerating. You shed and grow millions of skin cells each day. Ever notice that thick layer of dust blanketing everything in your crib (except for your climbing gear)? Household dust is 80 percent dead skin. Mouth breathing is nothing short of self-cannibalism.

Your skin, like a well-dressed alpinist, has multiple layers. The outer layer, the epidermis, is your body’s full-coverage Goretex suit. This relatively thin casing protects you from the environment, and is your first line of defense against razor holds.

The next layer, the dermis (pay attention, you’ll want to know this when we get into self-surgery), is thicker and home to your skin’s living structures. Just one square inch of dermis contains 20 blood vessels, a thousand nerve endings, follicles, 650 sweat glands and 60,000 melanocytes, the cells that color your skin and hair. Bloody flappers and deep cracks reach all the way into the dermis, ergo the blood.

Last, your skin has a subcutaneous layer. This contains adipose tissue, more commonly known as fat, a blubbery substance that insulates you from the cold and causes you to fall. Wounds into this layer require sutures. Fortunately, unless you fall onto a traveling salesman’s knife display, you are unlikely to rip yourself all the way to the subcutaneous just by climbing.

How you repair a finger cut or a flapper depends on the severity of the wound. If the flapper is shredded or hanging on by a hinge, trim it off, wash the crater, apply an antiseptic such as Neosporin, and bandage it until healed, usually two to four days. Keep the wound clean, moist and covered. Do not air-dry, as this slows the healing process and exposes the raw flesh to infection and blow flies.

If the cut or flapper is clean and neat, you can, after thoroughly washing it, glue it back in place and possibly keep climbing! In recent years, climbers have used SuperGlue and KrazyGlue to reattach skin. Cancer! These glues contain methyl-2-cyanoacrylate, which leech formaldehyde, the chemical an undertaker will someday pump into your raggedy ass, and which is also used by diet-soda makers to sweeten their brews (read Drinks to Die For by Dr. Theresa Ramsey.) Safer skin glues include Dermabond, available only to physicians, and the over-the-counter version Liquid Bandage, by BandAid.

When a cracked tip is beyond gluing, or reoccurs with the persistence of a venereal wart, surgery is necessary. Be forewarned: If you are squeamish, leave now.

Get a sharp pair of nail clippers or scissors and trim the skin and meat from both sides of the fissure. This will hurt, but pain is merely weakness leaving the body. Pare away until you’ve tapered all around the split, removing all vestiges of the crack. Also trim away the surrounding dry skin and file it thinner with sandpaper so it is less likely to initiate the crack anew. Pack the wound with Neosporin and cover with a Bandaid until healed.

All of the above would be as unnecessary as happiness if you just pampered your finger skin to begin with.

I knew a British climber once who never let his hands get wet. Water softens the calluses, he said. Not only would he never help with the dishes, but he even wore rubber gloves in the shower, although I cannot personally vouch that that is true.

That Brit climbed hard enough, but probably could have done even better, at least socially, if he’d understood that moisture is your skin’s friend. Dry, hard skin is prone to cracking, peeling and tearing more easily than supple, but still tough, skin. To keep your skin in top form you need to pamper it like a baseball mitt. When you are done climbing, wash off the chalk with soap and water. You only need to do this once, not again and again, like my other friend.

Once your hands are clean, slather on any of a large number of hand creams or lotions. I prefer Joshua Tree Climbing Salve as an après-climbing moisturizer. More waxy than greasy, JT Salve doesn’t lube up your hands, and, being all-natural, is packed with soothing hippie herbs, a single whiff of which reminds me of those bare-bellied hula-hoop chicks who hang out at the art fair. Know what I’m saying?

Vitamin E oil can also work, but this you need to eat to receive its benefits, which, according to the people who make he stuff, promote skin health. You can rub the E-oil into your hands, and it will keep your skin nice and supple, but believing that you can absorb the nutrient straight through your skin is like trying to get a buzz by splashing Olde English 800 on your face. Next!

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