Finnish manufacturers of coatings used to lubricate the bottoms of skis in competitive sports are searching for eco-friendly alternatives to the old industry standard, which is now perceived to be environmentally unsustainable.
The European Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki, has set maximum compound limits for fluorinated lubricants, set to come into effect next July. The International Ski Federation (FIS) announced a total ban on ski wax containing fluoride in late November.
These developments have ski wax firms on their toes as they seek innovative alternatives to fluoride – a chemical that makes skis exceptionally slick on the track, but tends to break down extremely slowly.
Racing skiers to renew equipment
The FIS decision will not slow down fitness or hobbyist skiers, as less lubricated skis aren't a problem outside of competitive circumstances. But for many companies who produce ski wax and lubricants, the fluoride ban spells trouble.
Every competitive skier on the international circuit will be forced to exchange all of their skis for ones that do not contain the prohibited substance starting in the 2020/2021 season.
CEO Leena Virkki of Redox, a Finnish firm that makes a ski wax called Rex, said her company had steeled itself for the EU restrictions. Now many of the changes they implemented are for naught.
"It's actually comical that next winter recreational ski events will allow faster waxes than the World Cup," Virkki said.
Another ski wax CEO, Esa Puukilainen from Vauhti Speed, said the total ban is the only way to go.
"The competition rules have to be even-handed. We can measure whether there are fluoride compounds on the skis, but not what type," Puukilainen said.
Countries such as Russia do not regulate the amount of fluoride in their skis, leading to some fears of an unfair competitive edge.
The EU's black list actually includes only one specific fluoride compound, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS), which has been shown to be environmentally harmful. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) said PFAS also accumulates in the kidneys and liver, causing lowered immune response and raised cholesterol levels.
Equivalent compounds hard to find
All the big wax producers already have non-fluoride varieties in their product lines. They will now compete to see who manages to create an alternative wax that is as fast as the fluoride version.
Manufacturers said that while lubricants and grip waxes are replaceable, clean fluoride coating is much harder to replicate.
"The so-called capillary friction of water that occurs on the bottom of skis remains low with fluoride compounds, [causing the ski to slide faster on snow]. It's a challenge to find a chemical that is as good at this," said CEO Hanna Salmi of the wax firm Startex.
The Vauhti researchers have been looking for an alternative since 2015.
Puukilainen said that the EU's restrictions spurred his company on in the search, as did a precedent from other Nordic countries. Norway banned fluorine waxes in competitive skiing in 2018.
First next-gen waxes available
The first new and improved, non-toxic waxes are already in production. Vauhti Speed introduced its series of waxes at the FIS Ruka Nordic championships in late November.
The Vauhti coatings are protected by a patent, but Puukilainen revealed that the fluoride compounds have been swapped for zinc stearate and silicon wax.
"Zinc soap is made from plant or animal fat, which breaks down easily in nature," he said.