Lubricants: Understand Your Options

By Anne Williams
[Classroom to Client]

Your choice of massage oil affects more than just the ease of performing a technique. Oils can condition, hydrate, and soften the skin, improve skin elasticity, and bring many other benefits to the client. Some oils have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties that make them especially useful in massage.
The oils used in massage lubricants usually come from vegetable sources (pressed from nuts or seeds such as avocado and almond), but animal fats such as ghee (clarified butter) are also used. We try to avoid mineral oil and other petroleum products that coat the skin and do not absorb; if they remain on the skin, they do not allow it to eliminate metabolic wastes through perspiration.
All oils can be classified as saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated fats—most contain all three types of fat, but are classified according to the type present in the greatest amount. For massage purposes, these terms indicate something about the texture and quality of the oil and how absorbable it is. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats, found mainly in animal products, are solid at room temperature and do not absorb into the skin. Whether or not topically applied oils penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream to become available for internal health benefits has been debated. Some studies say there are oils that can do this.1 Saturated fats, like those found in regular butter and cocoa butter, are poorly absorbed but may still have benefits for the skin. Ghee, for example, is used in ayurvedic medicine to lubricate the skin, promote wound healing, and decrease inflammation. Oils tend to be slippery when first applied but can be used with deeper, slower work as they are absorbed. Because they leave a moderate to heavy residue on the skin, you should provide clients with disposable wet wipes and a clean hand towel so that they can wipe off after a session. Some clients prefer cream over oil because they don’t like the oil residue.
It’s important to use oils that are expeller pressed (also called cold-pressed or expressed) as opposed to oils that are refined (like processed cooking oils). The refining process damages the essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in the oil, making it less viable for skin health when applied topically. Natural oils are more expensive than refined oils and tend to have a shorter shelf life. Purchase them in small quantities and refrigerate them between uses, making sure to warm them before a session.
When buying commercial massage oils, lotions, or gels, read the ingredients list carefully. Avoid preservatives like BHT, BHA, and EDTA; hydrogenated oils (oils that have been changed from poly or monounsaturated to saturated fats to make them more stable); lanolin, mineral oil, and petroleum; and dyes and synthetic fragrances.
Common Oils Used in Massage
A variety of exotic vegetable oils are available, many of which are suitable for massage. Some of the oils described below are best used in moderation or in combination with other oils for a massage session because of their high cost or viscous consistency.
• Almond oil (Prunus amygdalis var. dulcis) is pale yellow with a light odor and medium-weight texture.
• Apricot kernel oil (Prunus armeniaca) is yellow and has a prominent odor and lightweight texture. Avoid the refined oil, which has a pale yellow color and no odor.
• Avocado oil (Persea americana) is olive green and has a strong odor and heavy texture. An avocado oil that is pale yellow in color and odorless has been refined. Avocado oil is generally expensive but is particularly useful for stretch marks, dehydrated skin, scars, and mature skin.
• Canola oil (Brassica napus) is pale yellow and has a light odor and lightweight texture. Check to ensure that the canola oil is natural, organic, and unrefined. Heavily processed canola oil is often used as an ingredient in cheaper massage and body products.
• Cocoa butter (Theobroma cacao) is pale yellow and has an odor reminiscent of chocolate (in which it is a key ingredient). It is solid at room temperature but light- to medium-weight when melted and applied to the body warm or mixed with other oils. Because it contains high levels of saturated fats, it does not absorb into the skin but forms a micro-layer on top of the skin, which is useful for preventing moisture loss in dry skin.
• Coconut oil (Cocos nucifera) is clear or white, has a coconut odor, and may be solid or liquid at room temperature (it melts at 76 degrees Fahrenheit). It is medium weight when melted. Refined or fractionated products are most common, but unrefined coconut oil is increasingly easy to find. Like cocoa butter, coconut oil is high in saturated fats and does not absorb into the skin. This oil causes skin irritation in some individuals.
• Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) is yellow and has little odor and a heavy, almost sticky quality. Because of its high gamma-linolenic acid content, it has been used in the treatment of conditions including eczema. This oil is often used as a spot treatment during facial massage or added to other oils to boost their healing properties for the skin.
• Hazelnut oil (Corylus avellana) is yellow and has a mild, nutty odor and a lightweight texture. It is inexpensive and easy to find.
• Hemp seed oil (Cannabis sativa) is green and has a medium nutty odor and a heavy texture. While it is expensive, its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties make it especially useful in massage.
• Jojoba oil (Simmondsia chinensis) is bright yellow and has a light odor and a medium-weight texture. Jojoba is a wax that is liquid and stable at room temperature. It mimics sebum, the body’s natural moisturizer, and so is useful for all skin types. It is believed to regulate sebum production in oily skin when used for extended periods of time.
• Kukui nut oil (Aleurites moluccana) is pale yellow and has a sweet odor and a lightweight texture. While it is expensive, it contains high amounts of linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid, and vitamins A and E, which make it useful for healing sunburn, chapped skin, eczema, and psoriasis.
• Macadamia oil (Macadamia integrifolia) is pale yellow and has a light odor and a lightweight texture. Like jojoba oil, it mimics sebum and is useful for all
skin types.
• Mustard seed oil (Brassica juncea) is pale yellow and has a distinctive odor and a lightweight texture. It is often used in ayurvedic medicine as a warming oil for muscle stiffness and soreness. This cold-pressed mustard seed oil should not be confused with the steam-distilled essential oil of mustard seed, which is dangerous. The volatile oil is highly toxic and avoided in aromatherapy and massage.
• Rose hip seed oil (Rosa rubiginosa and other species) is light yellow-red and has a distinctive odor and a heavy, sticky texture. Oil produced with the CO2 extraction method is preferable to solvent-extracted oil. It is expensive, but useful for facial massage or for use on scar tissue.
• Safflower oil (Carthamus tinctorius) is yellow and has a mild odor and lightweight texture.
• Sesame oil (Sesamum indicum) is yellow and has a distinctive toasted nutty odor and medium-weight texture. One of the primary oils used in ayurvedic medicine, and often the base of taila (Indian medicated massage oils), it possesses warming and penetrating properties.
• Shea butter (Vitellaria paradoxa—formerly Butyrospermum parkii) is cream colored, has a distinctive odor, and is solid at room temperature. It must be melted for use in massage. It is high in oleic acid, saturated fats, and vitamins E and A, which make it particularly healing for damaged skin and hair when applied topically.
• Sunflower oil (Helianthus annuus) is yellow and has a mild odor and medium-weight texture.
Problematic Oils
Corn, grapeseed, peanut, and soybean oils are not regularly used in massage. Corn oil can be found in an unrefined form, but it is most often solvent-extracted and processed. Grapeseed and soy oils are heavily processed and extracted with strong solvents. Peanut oil has a very strong smell and may cause serious allergic reactions.
Allergic Reactions to Oils
During the health history intake, ask clients about food allergies to nuts or other substances. While an allergic reaction or skin sensitivity may occur with any substance applied to the skin, nut allergies are increasingly common, so these oils (peanut oil in particular) can cause mild to serious reactions.
Lotions and Creams
Lotions and creams are popular with clients because they leave the skin smooth but feel less greasy than oils. Another reason to use them instead of oil is because some massage techniques work best when the therapist’s hands can sink into the tissue and grab it instead of sliding over it.
Creams are heavier than lotions and so provide longer-lasting slip. Lotions are absorbed rapidly but work well for certain techniques like deep tissue and for areas like the feet and face.
Lotions and creams are emulsions: a blend of two unmixable substances (in this case, oil and water) held together by an emulsifying agent. The ingredients of some products are high quality and natural, held together by a vegetable-based emulsifier. Others are synthetic, heavily processed, and held together by an emulsifying wax, which is a chemical mixture of fatty alcohols and thickening agents.
Gels may be natural substances like aloe vera gel,
or a combination of natural and artificial ingredients in a gel-like formulation. Some massage gels are quite heavy and leave a residue on the skin as oils do. Natural gels tend to be absorbed very rapidly and leave little, if any, residue on the skin. Seaweed gels that are meant to be left on the body (as opposed to those made for body wraps that are meant to be removed) make a good massage product. Seaweed aids the body in detoxification because of its action on the thyroid. Seaweed products should not be used on clients with iodine or shellfish allergies, or with clients on thyroid medications, as they may cause serious reactions.
Safe Handling
Pick products carefully and fully research them to ensure they are appropriate for your practice. Keep products, especially unrefined oils, refrigerated between uses, and follow good sanitation protocols when handling them. Remember you are the one most exposed to a product. While you want quality products for your clients and their care, you have your hands and forearms in the product for up to 30 massages a week. Make sure you’re using products you know and trust.

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