Chamois Crème Shootout: Cream or Crème?
Chamois crèmes are a good holdover from the bad old days, when natural fabrics were the only things going. Back then, you needed to hold an advanced degree in laundry to keep from destroying cycling clothes. The chamois was a special burden to bear. Made of real leather, often from a chamois ("an agile goat antelope, Rupicapra rupicapra, of the high mountains of Europe," Random House Webster's), the seat pad was perfection on the first ride, but a battle from thereon. Each washing took oils out of the chamois that you could either ignore to your own detriment or work to prevent to your own detriment. Left alone, the chamois became like cardboard, rough to sit on, and eventually cracked. With attention, you could end up with a pad full of Vaseline. When you were also riding Brooks Proofhide saddles, the petroleum jelly soaking through the chamois and then through the wool shorts could soften up that saddle, but if you used a plastic-based saddle, it was just slimy. If you used Vaseline and had Lycra shorts, the Vaseline wrecked the Lycra.
Those days won't be missed. However, chamois crème survived. It is no longer petroleum-based, as that wrecks our synthetics. Today's crèmes are formulated to reduce friction which protects the skin from irritation. We tested out two products, the NRG Seat Up Gel Cream ($25.00/125ml) and Assos Chamois Crème ($18.95/140ml). Interestingly, Assos claims their product works with natural leather chamois as well as synthetic. NRG's instructions were translated from Italian and put the use of their product in blunt terms. "Ideal for all sports activities that are affected by local scraping problems."
Assos' is the more well-known of the two. Besides being on the market for years, and selling at a price point that makes it the most affordable product in their line, they received a nameless endorsement from a certain Tour de France winner in a reality show built around his training. The camera spotted him putting said crème on his chamois before a ride, and asked him what he was doing. He didn't name the product, but put the iconic product right in front of the camera. One 140ml tub with the distinctive Assos logo. Boom went the dynamite and everyone's been buying the stuff ever since.
Assos recommends putting the crème on before pulling on the shorts. With a natural chamois you'd need to apply after washing or riding and before air-drying. Some like their chamois slimy with the stuff before putting on the shorts, while others prefer it massaged in to the point of it almost disappearing off the chamois. In both cases, be ready for a sensation. Witch hazel extract is an ingredient and it provides a cooling tingling. The quality of the sensation depends on how much is on the chamois. Witch hazel is an age-old remedy for reducing inflammation and soothing skin, be it from burns or infections. It is supposed to be doing the same with your bum, while coating it so there is less friction between skin and chamois.
The sensation is a bit freaky the first time, so it might be better to massage it in to your skin by hand before pulling on your shorts, at least the first time. This might also be the preferred method for female cyclists.
The cooling sensation is what you notice right away, particularly on a cool day. Warmer days, the cooling is downright pleasant. The protection you don't notice until after the ride is over. And that's the funny thing about using these products, they work best when they're not noticed. It's not as if people often remark to their friends, "wow, I didn't get saddle sores this ride! What's up with that?" Or, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once remarked, "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence." He was right about chamois crèmes.
The biggest difference between Assos and NRG is the witch hazel. NRG, which is used by the Italian National Team, among others, has a complete line of rubs and gels (other NRG products will be reviewed in the next few months). Their Seat Up gel cream isn't "cooling" with a topical counter-irritant; it's just a lube and can be used on other parts of the body where clothes might rub against skin. Seat Up comes in a squeeze tube and feels both thinner and less greasy. That it's less greasy makes it seem as if we use more to cover the same area when applying to the chamois, but it is also easier to rub into hands or skin quickly and doesn't need to be wiped off afterwards.
With both products, we tried applying both on the chamois and on our person at different times. The nice thing about putting on our person is that the application seemed faster. The nice thing about putting it on the chamois was that we seemed to get better coverage.
Since we weren't regular chamois crème users before starting this test, we tried each product, one a ride, and alternating. The Assos definitely took a few rides to get used to, and on the cold days, those first few outdoor moments were more exhilarating than normal. We also found Assos users who put in on before every ride, and others who just rub it in on race day.
We rode in the rain, rode off road, raced cyclocross, put in long miles, a full complement of riding conditions to test out the products. We didn't get any saddle sores during the test. But we don't get many sores anyways—lots of riding has firmed up that skin and a good bike position minimizes the likelihood of raw skin from normal use. We're not sure if we'd use either for daily use in the future, but, when it comes to long mileage days, wet days, or days where we might be shifting our weight on the saddle while hammering (i.e. interval days or race days), we'd certainly put it on. The microscopic layer of insurance might be the difference between rubbing ourselves raw and not. Raw not only is bad for pedaling, but bad for recovery and a pain the next day. Comfort is key to going fast.