The ifs, whys and butts
of using chamois cream

Those of you fellow cyclists who are uncomfortable talking about discomfort may not want to broach our sport’s most tender subject, your backside.

Wait … don’t close this window.

Come on. Relax. We all need a frank discussion of our delicate areas and how to make them more comfortable over long (and sometimes short) sessions on the bike, either indoors or out. Because no one likes pain, and our goal here is simply to help you avoid a tender tush – by using chamois cream.

But before we get to the specifics of slathering, a few things that should be obvious:

First, wear cycling shorts. If you already do, skip this paragraph. If you don’t, know that a) the seams on the crotch of your pants do not play well with your perineal area and b) you needn’t squeeze into spandex to get the benefits of a cushioning chamois (pad) between you and the seat. If you equate tight-fitting cycling apparel with sausage casing, there are many baggy men’s and women’s padded shorts available. Remember, too, to always wash your shorts after you ride. The bacteria left behind in a sweaty chamois is a catalyst for rump rebellion.

“I thought I felt some chafing down there.”

(And although you’d think it goes without saying, wear your shorts right side in. The photo you see here – and we are not making this up – is of an actual finisher of a century ride in North Carolina who didn’t realize he’d ridden all 100 miles this way until we asked for a cheek-to-cheek selfie. “You know,” he said, “I thought I felt some chafing down there.”)

Second, the even more obvious: Don’t wear underwear under your cycling shorts. Those of you who don’t can skip this paragraph, too. Wearing tighty whiteys under your kit causes fabric-on-fabric friction, the pedaling equivalent of rubbing sticks together to make a fire. Hot crotches may be great for hungry hikers (there is actually something called The Crotch Pot, perhaps an homage to Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam”) but not so much on the bike.

Third, the sort-of-equally obvious: Use a good-fitting and well-fit saddle. If your perch is already all-day comfy, this is the last paragraph you’ll have to skip. If you’re struggling with your saddle, a bike fit is a great idea. Let a pro look at your position and you might find out that it’s you, not the seat, causing your owwies. If it is the saddle, then consider switching to something more favorable to your ergonomics and riding style.

The European, horned-animal namesake of the pads in our shorts.

OK, now that we’re through that, there are several reasons to use chamois cream with cycling shorts, comfort and hygiene chief among them. But there’s also tradition, which is how we got here in the first place. The origins of the cycling chamois – named for the goat/antelope found in Europe’s mountains – are fuzzy, but its use in wool shorts began in earnest in the 1940s. (Wool + skin + motion = chafing, and pro riders were cranky.) The first chamoises were made of sheep leather (later, softer deerskin), which were supple at first but when washed and dried took on the texture of coarse-grit sandpaper. That begat the use of cream, with lanolin (wool oil) the key ingredient. Applied directly to the pad surface, they brought back the leather’s soft texture.

(In American cycling circles, the go-to chamois creams for years were Bag Balm and Udder Butter, both more than 100 years old now and originally made for treating tender cow teats. Look in some cycling kit bags today and you’ll still find the green tins or yellow tubes, respectively, of those ancient products – the lubricious equivalent of downtube shifters.)

Skip forward to the ’80s and ’90s, when synthetic pads made of material like Coolmax (developed in 1986 by DuPont) replaced leather. Always soft and supple, impervious to washing and often made with antimicrobial material, synthetic pads were and continue to be game-changers. Now with contoured shapes and padding of various heights and densities, the new breed of chamois can comfort even the fussiest fannies.

Or, mostly.

Ouch. A saddle sore. Don’t get one of these.

When there’s a pool of perspiration down there – which can strike equally in summer or winter riding, and particularly during long trainer sessions – going without chamois cream is an invitation to irritation. It may take the form of redness, rawness, up to and including saddle sores, which are potentially serious abscesses that form under the skin and hurt like sitting on a nail.

(If you’ve never had a saddle sore, know that those of us who have would rather eat bees or stick a fork in our head than ride with one again.)

The quality and location of the stitching that bonds the chamois to the shorts can likewise be a point of friction. No two brands are alike. Where a pad in one pair of shorts may fit like a glove, another may turn out to be a long-ride irritant that requires some derriere dab.

The next question: What chamois cream to use? There are basically two kinds, those made with a base of mineral oil or petroleum jelly (often called “petrolatum” in the list of ingredients), like Paceline’s Chamois Butt’r, and those with a base of natural ingredients (animal, vegetable or plant oils), like Doc’s All Natural. Some have cooling ingredients like menthol, camphor, eucalyptus, aloe vera and/or witch hazel. There are also women’s versions, like Her from the Chamois Butt’r brand, with special female pH formulas.

What you choose comes down to a matter of personal preference and what works with your body. Some skin-care professionals will tell you to run screaming from this ingredient or that ingredient. Your riding buddies may tell you that they’ve used nothing but Vaseline for years and years; some will tell you that Vaseline will ruin your chamois. Still others might say that pure coconut oil is the way to go and that the only drawback is smelling like a sweaty piña colada. Treat every recommendation with a pinch of salt and try for yourself.

The how-to-apply-it question offers other choices. There are some old-schoolers who still apply the cream directly to the pad, a vestige of the leather days. And there’s nothing wrong with that (although some people don’t like the “I’m putting on a soggy diaper” feeling). Mostly, though – and an informal poll of the home office here at Performance confirms this – the most common way to apply cream is directly to your skin.

Before you pull on your shorts, gently rub the cream on your contact areas, the sit bones and the underside of your thighs, or anywhere you think friction will be a factor. Apply enough so that you have a layer between your skin and the chamois, but not so much so that you’re slip-sliding around (which causes more friction). Generally, “enough” is a large-coin-size amount, either a quarter or half-dollar size.

All Performance stores also carry single-use packets of Chamois Butt’r, perfect for sticking in a saddle bag or jersey pocket if your backside needs a mid-ride refresher.

Finally, if you find yourself at a ride without any chamois cream and someone offers you theirs, know this rule: If it comes in a tube, squeeze away; if it comes in a tub, no double dipping. Your buddies will thank you.

And if you use chamois cream, period, so will your bum.

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