In 2015 I wrote a moderately controversial review for the newly released Friction Labs Chalk, which had just hit the shelves in the UK. Some thought was it a hoax, others thought it was hype, and virtually everyone thought it was expensive, but was there something to it? Given the number of people I've seen using it since, either bouldering or sport climbing, I'd say there is something to it (either that or a remarkably effective placebo effect). As a result of its success I was keen to see how I got on with their liquid chalk (or 'cream', as they call it) - the 'Secret Stuff' and the more recently released Secret Stuff AF (alcohol free).
Friction Labs Secret Stuff - £12.50
In the past I've dabbled with a variety of different liquid chalks, but never been a full convert. The idea - for those that haven't used it - is that it keeps your hands drier for longer than loose chalk. As a result it is ideal for putting on your hands before getting on projects which are likely to be at the upper end of your grade spectrum, where the marginal gains will be most felt. Drier hands mean less slipping, less slipping means less falling, less falling means more sending. As a result it is probably of most interest to boulderers and sport climbers, because unless you're headpointing a trad climb the chances are that it'll have worn off by the time you place your first piece of gear - especially if you're on for a big three hour onsight!
So far liquid chalk probably sounds like a no-brainer. It makes you sweat less, great, but where's the downside? With most (in fact pretty much all) other liquid chalks I've used the major issue has been that in order to achieve the dryness it contains a very high alcohol content, which - if you're using it over an extended period of time - tends to result in dry skin and a vulnerability towards cracking. Given that the keen boulderers I know spend more time looking after their skin than most beauty specialists (n.b. I don't actually know any beauty specialists) this is something of an issue, because if your skin goes through then the chances are that you're going to fail on your project. This isn't to say that Secret Stuff doesn't contain alcohol, because it does - it's one of the three ingredients - but it's just to say that for one reason or the next it doesn't seem to have quite as severe an effect.
Another historic factor with liquid chalk is that it's always been very watery, which does give it quite a thin feel - hence a fairly meagre and short lasting coating - and also has a tendency of getting everywhere. The final downside (which may appear fickle) is that a lot of liquid chalks absolutely reek, and hence aren't something you desperately wish to apply to your own body.
With all that in mind, what's different about The Secret Stuff? First off, despite the fact it is indeed 'liquid' chalk it has a much creamier texture. The result (assuming you give it a good shake) is that is has some substance to it, which means you're able to apply it much more effectively as you can essentially scoop it up and move it around to key areas. The fact there's a bit more to it substance-wise also means that you get not only a much more even application (something that is evident from the pictures at the top of the review), but that it lasts longer. Whether or not the latter comes from its texture, or because Friction Labs chalk use a higher grade of magnesium carbonate is a matter for the chemists to debate, but the end result is much the same - Secret Stuff lasts for noticeably longer between applications. Another benefit is that because it doesn't just sploosh out in a watery mess you don't waste anywhere near as much as you would with traditional liquid chalk. Just apply a pea sized blob and that'll do you.
So how much longer are we talking here? The answer is complex and - as per all of our reviews - based on experience, not lab tests. I've used it in places like Bishop, California where you barely have to use any chalk due to the lack of humidity and a single coating could last several problems, particularly when 'topped up' by loose chalk. Closer to home, here in the Peak District where the humidity is likely to be a lot higher it will (unsurprisingly) wear off a lot, lot quicker. Dare I say it, but this is where the benefits are probably best felt, because it buys you those few more moves that make the difference between success and failure. Whilst this might not sound like much, consider all the time you spend training, or the distance you have to drive to the crag/money you have to spend on petrol, then put that into context alongside the fact that £12.50 could give you that extra edge.
Team Sky built their cycling success around making marginal gains and Friction Labs Secret Stuff does much the same for the climber. It can't really be compared to other types of liquid chalk as it's got such a different feel. Performance-wise it's going to buy you a few more moves, which could result in you successfully sending your project - something that is hard to put a price on. That said, the price is £12.50 and given that you don't have to use a lot of it each time it tends to go quite a long way. Unlike other liquid chalks it doesn't appear to have the negative effect that some do on your skin, which means that repeated application isn't a problem.
- For more info see frictionlabs.com
Secret Stuff AF - £12.50
As you can probably tell from the review of the Secret Stuff, I liked it, and as a result of this had high hopes for the AF version; however, it is worth mentioning from the outset that it is a very different product in terms of both performance and feel.
If judged by the standards of the original then prepare to be disappointed, because like-for-like the two are incomparable, with the original keeping you significantly drier for significantly longer. This shouldn't really come as too much of a shock, because AF doesn't have alcohol in it. So what is the purpose of this version? First off, the lack of alcohol will be desirable to those who have particularly sensitive or dry skin. Whilst I didn't have issues with the standard Secret Stuff, some might, and if so it could be worth considering this. Secondly, I would argue that through usage I have found a purpose for it, which isn't necessarily what I'd first expected, and there are a few other circumstances in which it would also be useful that I didn't give it a thorough testing in (for reasons I'll come onto later).
When it comes to feel AF is more gel-like and due to the lack of alcohol takes a lot longer to dry (circa 90 seconds, compared to c.20-30 secs for the standard). As a result you'll really want to give it a good wave around to ensure it has dried, because there's nothing worse than lining up for the big send only to slime off the starting holds. As a result of this I don't tend to use it a great deal immediately before problems - instead I apply it almost as soon as I get to the crag in order to give myself a good base layer. Whilst it may sound pedantic, your hands upon arriving at the crag tend to be hotter, hence your skin slightly sweatier and the Secret Stuff AF is a good way of getting rid of this. Another thing which is worth doing, completely unrelated to the review at hand, is to leave you skin time to cool back down from the approach. Whether this be by trying a few easier problems or warming up is your choice, but be sure to do so because if you ignore it then you're far more likely to split a tip. Whilst this may sound tenuous, the Secret Stuff AF became part of my routine whilst climbing both in the Peak District and in Font (two places that require your skin to be in pristine condition).
Another thought which would be entirely worthwhile, might be to encourage each and every climber at your local wall to use something like this in order to reduce the amount of chalk dust that is kicking around in the air. I'm not necessarily saying that Friction Labs need to have a monopoly on this, but if each wall/training facility adopted this approach I suspect the air quality would radically increase - something that would make the experience of visiting the wall much more pleasant.
A final usage which I didn't get to test, mostly because writing this review didn't result in an all expenses paid trip to Bishop, is that the Secret Stuff AF would likely be perfect for lower humidity conditions, where the original Secret Stuff would likely be overkill. In the UK's consistently high humidity conditions this isn't something I've ever found myself managing to get away with!
Out of the two I would choose the original Secret Stuff every time, but if you suffer from sensitive skin or are just after another potentially even more marginal gain, then look no further. If everyone were to adopt using a product of this kind I genuinely think climbing walls would be a nicer place to hang out.