If you’ve been to a bouldering gym lately, you’ll notice there are two camps: liquid chalk users and powdered chalk users.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between the two. We’ll compare advantages and disadvantages, look at the difference in grip, and compare prices.
Let’s get started.
📚 This article is part of our extensive Bouldering Guide
What is Powder Chalk?
Powdered chalk has been used by climbers ever since it was introduced by John Gill in the 50s. This chalk comes in a variety of types (from fine chalk to chunky chalk) and is usually brought to the gym inside a chalk bag, a chalk bucket, or a chalk ball.
Powdered chalk is easy and quick to use in that you simply put your hands inside your chalk bag and you are good to go.
One big disadvantage of powdered chalk is that it releases dust particles in the air. In extreme examples, this can cause irritation in the respiratory system, coughing, and pulmonary problems.
While powdered chalk is necessary in sport climbing, and climbers wear a chalk bag attached to their harness so they can reapply en-route, this isn’t the case for bouldering. Boulder problems are so short that you don’t need to wear a chalk bag. Hence why you so often find chalk bags laying on the mats at bouldering gyms (some boulderers still wear them though).
Pros of Powdered Chalk
- Fast application – powdered chalk is quick and easy. All you have to do is place your hands inside your chalk bag and you are good to go.
- Broader selection – there are many different types of powdered chalk on the market for every type of hand and personal preference. When it comes to powdered chalk, you can really shop around and find something that best suits your hands.
- Better for your hands – powdered chalk doesn’t excessively dry out your hands like liquid chalk does. This makes powdered chalk better for people with sensitive skin.
Cons of powdered chalk
- Dust exposure – powdered chalk releases dust particular in the air which is bad for your health and those around you.
- Lots of waste – no matter how careful you are, powdered chalk is always wasteful.
- Often banned in climbing gyms – loose chalk isn’t great for the health of climbers which is why many gyms have started banning powdered chalk in favor of chalk balls and liquid chalk.
- Covers clothes in chalk – climbers who use loose chalk are always covered in chalk dust.
Also interesting: how much chalk should you have in chalk bag
What is liquid chalk?
Liquid chalk can offer that same coat of chalk on your hands by applying an alcohol-based gel to your hands. This has advantages over powdered chalk such as no dust particles, being alcohol-based makes it deinfectant and it stays longer than powdered chalk.
The one big disadvantage that liquid chalk has is that it takes a while to apply. Here’s a sequence of me applying liquid chalk over the course of a minute.
About a minute after application, I can finally start climbing with liquid chalk.
Pros of liquid chalk
- Disinfectant – being alcohol-based, liquid chalk has desinfecting properties. This makes it very handy at a climbing gym where everyone is touching the handholds and germs are easily spread.
- Lasts longer – liquid chalk sticks to your hands much better than loose chalk. On top of that, liquid chalk has a drying effect and thus you need to reapply much less chalk than you would with powdered chalk.
- No dust exposure – one of the biggest advantages liquid chalk has it that it releases no dust particles in the air and thus doesn’t pollute the air quality of a gym. Making liquid chalk much better for your health and those around you.
- Always allowed – since liquid chalk doesn’t harm anyone, doesn’t release dust particles and doesn’t spill, you never have to worry about it being disallowed from a bouldering gym. Many bouldering gyms are becoming liquid-chalk only and this will only become more and more common in the future.
Cons of liquid chalk
- Long application – liquid chalk can take up to a whole minute to dry. This makes it bothersome if you have super sweaty hands that need constant reapplication.
- Bad for sensitive skin – if you struggle with sensitive skin (e.g. eczema) you want to stay away from liquid chalk as it has a drying effect which can crack your skin. If this is the case for you, most likely, a chalk ball is your best bet.
- More expensive – if you solely use liquid chalk, your bottle will run out quite quickly and this will cos ta bit more than powdered chalk which can last a long time
Which is the Cheaper, Liquid or Powder Chalk?
A typical liquid chalk bottle goes for around 10 euros per 200ml. Within the same price range, you can get about 300 grams of cheaper loose chalk (Black Diamond White Gold) and 80 grams (Friction Labs Unicorn Dust) of the more expensive kind.
Loose chalk needs to be applied more often and wastes much more chalk. Liquid chalk on the other hand is never wasted and stays for a long time. For this reason, liquid chalk is often cheaper than powdered chalk. Especially if you go for fancy chalk such as Unicorn Dust.
However, this is is largely dependent on the chalk itself. If you are a climber who needs fancy powder chalk, liquid chalk will be much cheaper. But other than that, I find the price difference between liquid and powdered chalk not to be very noticeable. The only exception is the chalk ball, a chalk ball is much cheaper than loose chalk or liquid chalk.
Liquid Chalk is Better for Sweaty hands
While all kinds of chalk are designed to dry out your hands, liquid chalk stays the longest and provides the best kind of solution for sweaty hands. If sweaty palms is something you struggle with, liquid chalk should provide a solution.
That being said, in some cases, liquid chalk is simply not enough.
Tip for sweaty hands: use both liquid and loose chalk
If you are anything like me and have extremely sweaty palms, than neither loose chalk or liquid chalk will provide the perfect solution. While liquid chalk is best for sweaty hands, you will have to reapply it so often that the extensive drying period will become tiresome.
For this reason, I use both liquid chalk and powdered chalk. Before my bouldering session, I will apply liquid chalk first to provide myself with a base coat. During the rest of the session, I will use my chunky loose chalk to get me through my session. Each time I feel my hands get sweaty again, I re-apply my liquid chalk.
The base coat of liquid chalk will make it so that your powdered chalk sticks much better to you hands so you will get much more out of it.
I’ve found this to be the perfect solution for extreme cases. By using both liquid and loose chalk, you ensure that your hands never get sweaty, and you don’t have to wait as often.
First time Bouldering? Go for Liquid Chalk
If it’s your first time at a bouldering gym, or you are shopping around for your first chalk as a new boulderer, you 100% should choose liquid chalk. Liquid chalk is easier in application (although it takes a while), much better for your health and others, disinfects, and provides amazing grip.
Besides, for liquid chalk, you don’t need to get a chalk bag or bucket. Liquid chalk has so many advantages over powdered chalk that it is a no-brainer for new boulderers who have never used powdered chalk before.
It’s the step from powdered chalk to liquid chalk that is so difficult. I recommend you start with liquid chalk first and if you like it, stick with it. If you don’t, you can consider powdered chalk.
Powdered Chalk looks Cooler, Period
Stuffing your hands inside a chalk bag looks much cooler than applying liquid chalk on your hands. This is never going to change. And for many climbers, this is the main reason why they won’t even consider switching to liquid chalk, even if they would hate to admit it.
“It just makes you look goofy” is what a friend told me once when I first brought up liquid chalk (his phrasing was much funnier in flemish).
And it’s true.
Whipping out your liquid chalk bottle before attempting a boulder problem (only to wait a minute for it to dry while you blow your hands) is never going to look as good as stuffing your hand inside your chalk bag.
So climbers who value looking badass, will never make the switch to liquid chalk, no matter how many advantages you throw their way.
Liquid Chalk vs Powdered Chalk – Which is the best?
Liquid chalk is the healthiest option of the two which is why so many gyms favor it and others have down right banned powdered chalk. Not only is liquid chalk disinfecting, it also releases no dust particles in the air. Meaning a climbing gym that only allows liquid chalk, has much healthier air quality as a gym that doesn’t allow powdered chalk.
That being said, liquid chalk is not for everyone. Its application is very slow which makes it very difficult to switch from the instant solution that powdered chalk has always provided climbers. On top of that, liquid chalk can cause problems for those struggling with sensitive skin.
I would recommend liquid chalk to:
- Beginners who are looking for their first chalk
- Anyone who doesn’t have sensitive skin
- Anyone with sweaty hands
I would recommend loose chalk to:
- Anyone with sensitive skin
- Anyone who has tried liquid chalk but can’t seem to make it work
It looks like liquid chalk might be the future of bouldering gyms. More and more indoor bouldering walls (especially the commercial ones) are going liquid-chalk only so we might all need to adapt into the future.
If haven’t tried liquid chalk yet, you should. It is a game changer.
I use liquid chalk in combination with powdered chalk. As much as I would like to fully convert into liquid chalk, my hands are much too sweaty for that. Due to my overly sweaty palms, even liquid chalk stays on for no more than a single boulder problem. If I don’t chalk up before every climb, I will slip off.
For this reason, I use liquid chalk as a base coat and chalk up before every boulder problem. Around every half hour, I will re-apply liquid chalk to dry out my hands once more. This may work for you as well but is not recommended if you don’t have overly sweaty hands. (Trust me, you’d know if you do)
I’ll finalise this comparison article by listing some of the best liquid chalk and powdered chalk I’ve used.
Best Liquid Chalk
Personal favorite: Ocùn Liquid Chalk
Liquid chalk from Ocùn does everything that you would expect from liquid chalk. The packaging is compact making it easily fit inside a bouldering bucket. I like it because the tip doesn’t dry out which is common among other liquid chalks.
Ocùn Liquid chalk is also very affordable at just 10 euros per 200ml.
Other options: Petzl, Mammut
Other liquid chalks I’ve used are Petzl and Mammut. These can be bought in the same tube packaging as Ocùn which I prefer as it easily fits inside my bouldering bucket. I noticed no difference in dryness between either of these chalks. Get which one is cheapest or most easily available in your location.
I would stay away from the more expensive liquid chalks such as Frictionlabs as they just aren’t worth the price increase in my opinion. (but some people swear by them)
Best Powdered Chalk
Sweaty Hands: Black Diamond White Gold
Black Diamond White Gold is the powder chalk you want if you have sweaty hands like me. This chalk is quite chunky and extremely drying. Many climbers find the drying excessive so if you don’t have sweaty hands, don’t get this chalk. But if you do, it is phenomenal. The best part? It is SUPER cheap.
Normal hands: 8b+ Powder Chalk
My girlfriend swears by this chalk. This fine chalk is ideal for anyone with normal (not overly-sweaty) and sensitive hands. It is cheap and comes in a nice resealable, see-through package. Bonus points for the branding as well. Beats my bland package of white gold.
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