Does lanolin retain body heat? Myth or Fact?

evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
edited February 2013 in General Discussion
Some marathon swimmers think lanolin helps retain body heat in cold water. Other marathon swimmers think this is a myth, and that lanolin is only for preventing chafing.

What do you think?
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  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    "Like" this post if you think lanolin retains body heat.
  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    "Like" this post if you think lanolin DOES NOT retain heat, and is only for preventing chafing.
  • WaterGirlWaterGirl Charter Member
    From a physics standpoint, there are two ways that a substance like lanolin could affect body heat.
    1.) Assuming that lanolin is a poorer conductor of heat than water, coating the skin with lanolin would increase the amount of time it took for the skin to get as cold as the water. Even if this affect were perceptible (which I doubt), it wouldn't last very long. After x number of seconds, the skin temperature would be the same as the water temperature. At most, it might reduce the initial shock of getting into the water.

    2.) Coating the body with lanolin or Vaseline interferes with evaporative cooling. On land, that would make a huge difference. You would be miserable if you went for a run coated in lanolin. In the water, it's not a very big deal. But, you might be able to perceive your arms being warmer on a windy day if they were coated with one of those substances.

    There is no way that a substance like lanolin can "trap" body heat.
  • ssthomasssthomas Charter Member
    I was given my first tube of lanolin at my first 10k and was told, "Put this on- it helps with chafing and will keep you warmer." I got pretty cold in that 72 degree water... pretty sure the lanolin didn't help. I still use lanolin for chafing prevention, but I've done plenty of cold water swims with and without it (I usually don't have chafing issues until after 2 hours in fresh water, so shorter swims get nothing, longer swims do). Anyone who thinks it makes you warmer is just tricking your mind into believing it. I feel the same way about ear plugs, for what that's worth.
  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    A little background on this thread.

    I was having a conversation with another marathon swimmer (we'll call him 'Joe'), which went something like this:

    Joe: [statement that implied lanolin retains body heat]
    me: Lanolin does not retain body heat.
    Joe: Then why do marathon swimmers use lanolin, if not to retain body heat?
    me: To prevent chafing, and because it stays on longer than vaseline.
    Joe: Well, even if lanolin doesn't retain body heat, I bet most marathon swimmers think it does.
    me: No, I don't think they do.
    Joe: Yes they do.
    me: No they don't.

    blah blah blah.

    So there you have it.
  • ssthomasssthomas Charter Member
    edited February 2013
    It was a fairly experienced 10k swimmer who handed me my first tube. So, I suppose there must be a few who are being tricked by themselves...
  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    edited February 2013
    It may be a generational thing. See the following passage from Wind, Waves, & Sunburn (published 1974):

    Greasing the body remains one of the most enigmatic practices that I am still undecided about. All types of grease are used. Captain Webb used porpoise grease. Swimmers today use vaseline, lanolin, and various other heavy machine greases. Lanolin is by far the most used, but not the most popular.
    ...
    Once on it stays. Abo-Heif still had a significant amount clinging to him after his thirty-five hour Lake Michigan swim. The mechanical friction of the water removes vaseline rather quickly and is not recommended.
    ...
    There was one report where an investigator thought that swimmers would inhibit the metabolism of the skin by using grease and was for that reason against its use. He also suggested that the mechanical friction of the water rapidly removed, or significantly diminished, the lanolin or grease, thus removing any insulative layer at first present. However he found with later studies that only two to three millimeters were sufficient to give insulative results.
    ...
    In any case I have not seen any heavily greased swimmer suffer any negative effects from its use. Abo-Heif's swim alone should be testament to that fact. Any prolonged swimming in water below sixty degrees means the swimmer better have fat first and then grease. While the question of grease is still unanswered there is still the psychological uplift gained from its use. A full circle thus seems to have been made.

    Personally I believe most of the swimmers will use the stuff. Aside from its purported insulative value there is one other value of significance. It serves as a lubricant around the friction points of the body.



    [Google Books link to passage]
    [Buy Wind, Waves, & Sunburn from Amazon]
  • loneswimmerloneswimmer Admin
    edited February 2013
    I've never heard any Irish or UK swimmer claim lanolin retains heat. Not that I've met them all, but experience with cold is pretty extensive here. I do know swimmers who hate lanolin but that tends to be because of the smell or the difficulty removing it or the mess etc.

    One of the marathon swim related books, but for the life I can't remember which, had a bizarre discussion about this in which it said a small number of swimmers believed "that lanolin in fact retained cold", making the swimmer feel colder. The retaining cold phrase was so odd I haven't forgotten it.
  • ssthomas said:

    I feel the same way about ear plugs, for what that's worth.

    One thing of note about earplugs is that getting cold water in your ears can make some people quite nauseated and they can prevent this. During the Korean war of the early 1950's, dripping cold water into the ear was used as torture by the Chinese and North Koreans for exactly that reason.

    -LBJ
    "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." - T.S. Eliot
  • dc_in_sfdc_in_sf San FranciscoMember
    ssthomas said:

    I feel the same way about ear plugs, for what that's worth.

    I thought the point of earplugs was to prevent Surfer's Ear?

    http://notdrowningswimming.com - open water adventures of a very ordinary swimmer
  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    edited February 2013
    oxo said:
    Thanks @oxo. Closest library copy for me is 81 miles away. Plus, library books have cooties, and buying one from Amazon helps support your friendly local ad-free marathon swimmers forum.
  • ssthomasssthomas Charter Member
    @dc_in_sf and @Leonard_Jansen: Like Lanolin, I've heard that ear plugs serve a dual purpose: Preventing swimmer's ear/vertigo issues AND to keep you warmer. Several people have tried to convince me that ear plugs make you feel 3-4 degrees warmer because they insulate your inner ear. I know they do for sure impact any nausea/vertigo issues, but I don't buy it that they make you feel warmer.
  • I feel warmer with ear plugs in, but that may be psychological.
  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    New word for the day - cooties. @evmo - libraries are our friends.
  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    KarenT said:

    New word for the day - cooties. @evmo - libraries are our friends.

    Karen, I jest, of course. My girlfriend is a librarian.
  • Try getting into really cold water sub 4 degrees with one earplug only. The unplugged ear gets a real cold water shock.

    I have used lanolin but cannot say one way or other about long term heat retention other than hoping it works.

    But would it also add bouyancy? Would it help you slip through the water?
  • NiekNiek Member
    edited February 2013
    Would it help you slip through the water?

    I know from my sailing that a too smooth hull is slower the a slightly roughed hull.
    A rough hull holds some air bubbles trapped to the hull and in that way diminish the friction between hull and water. The air is the lubricant.
    The air is in the water.
    A completely smooth hull lacks those tine air bubbles and has more friction.

    Compare it to a shark skin. That skin is also not smooth.
    http://openwaterswimming.eu - Cold, wind, waves, sunburn, currents, jellyfish and flotsam! Hop in and join the fun!
  • ssthomas said:

    I feel the same way about ear plugs, for what that's worth.

    I feel ear plugs help me avoid brain freeze upon entering colder water.
  • WaterGirlWaterGirl Charter Member
    It makes sense that earplugs would keep you a little warmer. When you're wearing earplugs, the temperature of the air in your ear canal would stay pretty close to body temperature.

    Without the earplugs, the ear would fill with water. It takes more energy to heat water than it does to heat air, so the water in your ears would be colder than the earplug-protected air. Plus, water would keep circulating, so the warm-ish water would constantly be replaced with new cold water.
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