I'm sure, as someone who partakes in regular massages, you’ve noticed that there are many different types of massage and bodywork. Based on what you need help with that day, you may choose a Swedish massage to help you de-stress, or a Sports massage to help with muscle recovery, or one of many other types. What may be less obvious is that there are also a wide variety of massage lubricants. The oil or lotion used in a massage is just as important as the type of massage you receive, though this vital bodywork tool is often ignored and taken for granted. Here’s some information on what all those tubes and bottles may contain, and why you should care.
Oil: The different types of massage oils are almost as varied as the different types of lubricants all together. When I say oil, I don’t mean cooking oil, though olive oil makes a great massage oil and is great for your skin. Many massage oils are plant based. Some examples are: jojoba, coconut oil, apricot oil, almond oil, avocado, and grape seed, just to name a few. Jojoba and coconut are also wonderful for your skin, and jojoba is very close in composition to our skin’s natural sebum, or our natural oils. Some massage oils are made of synthetic products, though many massage therapists choose to use the naturally derived oils that are easily available.
Essential oils alone would not make a good massage oil, though they are easily added to the oils I mentioned above. To be a good massage oil, the oil must have some fatty content in order to have some sort of thicker viscosity. The viscosity is the measure of how much “slick” the oil has. Essential oils alone absorb too quickly and don’t have much “slick” or “slide”.
Massage oils are great to use in Swedish massage because they allow a good amount of glide (the slick and slide). In a Swedish massage your therapist uses long, sweeping type strokes that promote relaxation of the body, mind, and nervous system. Having a massage lubricant like an oil that allows for that nice smooth glide is a great tool for other “sweeping” glide type massages, such as Lomi lomi. As I stated already, essential oils can be easily added into massage oils and used to further promote relaxation or help ease sore muscles.
One downside of massage oils is that they can stain fabric, and therefore be difficult to wash out of linens.
Lotions: Another massage lubricant that can be good to use in Swedish massage is a lotion. There are tons of massage lotions on the market. Choosing one is usually up to the preference of the therapist and their clients. Just like lotions we use at home, there are organic and plant based options, or synthetic ones. If you use lotion regularly at home then you know that these too can be very hydrating for your skin.
Some of the benefits of using a lotion are that they don’t absorb quite as quickly as an oil. They also have a little less glide, which is helpful for a massage that includes both relaxing, sweeping strokes and some focused deeper work. When a therapist is doing more focused work, they need a massage lubricant that won’t glide too much, so that they can “grip” the tissues a little better. Another benefit of lotions is that they may be easier to wash out of linens. A downside to lotion? It’s a little harder to get essential oils to absorb into them, though not impossible. Aromatherapy can still be used with lotions, and some massage lotions come already scented.
Creams: I always think of massage creams as being the heavier relative of lotions. This means that they have even less glide than lotion, but are also even more hydrating. Creams are a good option for when a massage involves a lot of focused work on a client who has dry skin. Creams are great for foot massages. Like all of the other options I’ve mentioned so far, they come in synthetic and more plant based versions. Some of the more natural creams I like are shea butter and cocoa butter. They absorb essential oils about as well as lotions do, so aromatherapy can be easily used with creams. Some downsides to creams are that they may be too heavy for some skin types, and may be harder to wash out of fabric.
Gels: The last massage lubricant I want to mention is gels. Gels are going to offer a lot of specialty type action for more focused massage, such as Sports massage and Deep Tissue. Most massage gels are synthetic and absorb fairly quickly, giving the therapist plenty of “grip” for that focused work. They are also often made with ingredients that help relieve muscle soreness and pain. Essential oils can be added to gels as well to help with pain relief and relaxation. A naturally derived example of a massage gel would be aloe vera.
So now you know a little bit more about what your therapist is always putting on you during your massages! What to do with this information? The type of lubricant used is usually up to the discretion of the therapist. We know which type will work best for which type of massage we’re doing. Many therapists have their preferences and may only work with one or two types of lubricant. I prefer naturally derived oils myself. While it may be best to leave the TYPE of massage lubricant used up to your therapist, feel free to ask them what’s in it. Make sure there are no ingredients you are allergic to or have any dietary restriction for (gluten, anybody?). Also, if you’re experiencing dry or problematic skin, speak up! Your therapist can try using a lubricant better suited to your skin's needs.
Have any questions about massage lotions and oils? Feel free to reach out!