If you’re new to cycling, you may have heard talk of a mysterious preparation called chamois cream. You may have wondered what it is, but, realising that it’s something to do with your undercarriage, been too embarrassed to ask. To spare your blushes, we’re going to tell you.
The liner in cycling shorts is these days made from a sandwich of very clever foams and synthetic fabrics, designed to sit against your skin and keep you comfortable. The outer layer in particular is designed not to chafe your skin and to move with you as you pedal.
Wind the clock back 30-odd years or so and there were no fancy synthetic shorts liners. Instead, what you found when you turned your shorts inside out was a piece of soft leather, made from the skin of a chamois goat. That’s right, one of these:
The problem with a leather lining is that it relies on the natural oils in the leather for its softness and comfort. Washing — especially machine washing — removes those oils, so you have to replace them. That’s where original chamois cream came in. It was a goop that replaced the oils in chamois leather, keeping it soft so you could wear it against your skin, and stopping it from cracking.
A useful side-effect of chamois cream was that it provided a layer of lubrication on top of the leather that further helped prevent chafing. Even though there’s no need to treat modern pads with chamois cream to keep them supple, it can be useful to keep you comfortable.
There are three situations when chamois cream is particularly useful: for very long rides; for indoor training, where you're on the saddle almost all the time; and for returning to cycling after a few weeks off.
When you ride, your skin adapts to the pressure of your weight on the saddle and toughens up. If you take a break from cycling your skin returns to its original softness, at least partially. Chamois cream helps keep your bits comfy until they toughen up again.
A ride substantially longer than you usually do is similar. Your undercarriage may be toughened up for 50- or 60-mile rides and you may have done enough training you’re confident of completing a century, but the extra distance can make you sore enough that the last few miles are no fun at all. Chamois cream to the rescue, preventing a sore bottom.
Chamois creams also contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal ingredients to help reduce the likelihood of skin infections. Basic hygiene helps too — get out of your shorts and get showered as soon as possible after a ride; always wash shorts between wears — but an extra line of protection against the dreaded saddle sores can’t hurt.
Chamois cream brands tend to come and go, but give you a feel for what's out there, here are some of our favourites.
2Toms Buttshield is a very, very good chamois cream, although it's not really a cream and more of a liquid. It's odourless, goes on without any mess and, thanks to the application method of rolling a thin film on the skin, there's no chance of over lubing. Buttshield is very smooth and silky to the touch and doesn't feel in any way unpleasantly clammy or sticky once it's in place down where it needs to be.
And once Buttshield is there it stays down there, even over the longest rides. Despite not being able to feel it between your legs (a good thing) it does work (also a good thing), preventing rubbing and soreness for whatever length ride you choose to be on.
Bikemonger's Happy Bottom Bum Butter is a distinctly different unguent for down below, more a wax than a cream, but it nevertheless lubes your bits really well and lasts a long time.
Happy Bottom Bum Butter is not your normal kind of chamois cream, not just because it's hand produced in Dorset just up the road from Charlie the Bikemonger's shop, and not because it's completely chemical free, made from 100% natural ingredients and also vegan friendly.
It isn't a cream, or even very much like butter – well, maybe butter from the fridge as it's very solid in consistency, firmer even than lip balm, more like surf wax according to those who know such things.
Muc-Off's Luxury Chamois Cream performs really well. That's the bottom line here. When it comes to the other kind of bottom line – the financial kind – you might be put off by the £20 RRP. That's assuming you buy it for the full retail price, though: shop around.
Muc-Off's formulation is anti-bacterial (containing aloe vera and witch hazel) and has a ‘mild cooling function’ – a bit tingly but nothing like some I've tried. It's pleasant enough when applied.
Once it's there, it stays there and does a good job of staving off any chafing from your shorts.
A mainstay of many cyclists' bathroom cabinets, Assos chamois cream is a classic that basically Just Works. It's durable, thick but spreadable and has a minty smell that translates into an, ahem, interesting cooling sensation as a well-prepped pad contacts your bits.
If you're a fan of long hours in the saddle then you've probably got a favourite chamois cream already. Even if you swear by one particular unguent or another, you should give this Sportique Century Riding Cream a go. Because it's brilliant.
t's incredibly tenacious. You stick this on your pad and it'll still be there when you get off the bike, no matter how long that is. Even after 15 straight hours in the saddle on a warm day it was doing the business. No chafing, no soreness, no nothing.
There's nothing worse than chaffed skin in the saddle-contact area, and actual saddle sores are even worse, so if you're packing in the miles, and especially if you're doing multi-day rides, some anti-chafing cream is recommended, and Purple Harry's is well worth trying.
It's effective, but it's not cheap. Direct comparisons are tricky, but the £9 RRP for 100g is expensive compared to many other chamois creams.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.