Topical Stress Relief

How to Choose Your Massage Medium: Oil, Cream, or Lotion?

With so many different massage creams, lotions, oils, and gels on the market, it can be hard to discern the difference between each one, much less decide which is best for your massage style and techniques. Choosing the right product is crucial to achieving the best results from your massage, whether giving or receiving. Here is a comprehensive guide to the benefits and properties of each product, and also drill down to different types of oils and their effects.

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Oils, Creams, Lotions, and Gels: What's the Difference?

While it may seem like a small thing, the lubricant you use during a massage makes a big difference towards the outcome of the session. The product that you use depends on three things:

  1. The modality of the massage and how much glide or friction you need

  2. The effect on the skin- absorption rate and texture of the medium

  3. Personal preference

The first two are very clear cut and can be decided by the various properties of each cream, lotion, oil, or gel, but personal preference plays a big part in deciding which to use. For the client, it all depends on how they want their skin to smell and feel after the massage, and for the therapist, it has to do with how well they can work with the product.

Massage Oil

Massage oil is the original medium for massage. Early practitioners used different vegetable oils for each of their modalities. Oil gives the most glide of all massage products, which makes it optimal for Swedish massage and other modalities that use large sweeping motions over the whole body. Oil is also very versatile, so the amount of oil used will change the amount of friction, making it a very handy tool for any occasion. Massage oils are typically made from a combination of oils, such as Earthlite’s Pro-Lite massage oil, which includes apricot oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and avocado oil. The advantage of Earthlite formulas is that they are masterfully blended to combine the benefits of each individual oil into one super product. Professional oil blends formulated with plant-based oils are the purest medium, with no chemicals, preservatives, or stabilizers that are generally needed to hold together the emulsion of oil and water for creams, lotions, and gels.

Natural vegetable oils nourish the skin and protect its natural lipid barrier, unlike other products which can strip it away. Most oils are noncomedogenic, which means that they won’t clog pores. Plant based oils are also often used for aromatherapy blending and are called “carrier oils” as they are easily absorbed into the skin and transport pure essential oils into the dermal layers to the capillaries to be circulated throughout the bloodstream. Plant based oils such as almond, apricot, and safflower are the best for gliding on skin without laying too heavy or feeling greasy to the client, providing a smooth experience for therapist and client.

Massage Gels

Massage gels are more viscous than massage oil, so they provide more a bit more friction, but not by much. Massage gels are made by adding a wax base and emulsifiers to oil to make it thicker and therefore adding a bit more substance to the product. As massage gels are worked into muscle groups, the friction the therapists create with their hands heat up the area. Massage gels tend to absorb less into the skin which means that they don’t require re-application as often as oil but also are not ideal for aromatherapy or for moisturizing and nourishing the skin.

Massage gels are ideal where both broad strokes and smaller focused strokes are utilized. Therapists like to use massage gel for deep tissue and sport massage, where it is necessary to target smaller muscle groups. Gels allows therapists to generate friction without the greasy feeling of some massage oils. Another benefit of massage gel is that it tends not to stain sheets like some creams or lotions can. In general, gels are ideal for more focused massage techniques to localized areas, and other products are better for full-body massage.

Massage Lotion

Massage lotion is less thick than massage cream, but more viscous than oil or gel. Massage lotion is an oil in water emulsion made with a combination of plant-based oils, herbal extracts and vitamins. The main benefit of lotion is its versatility. Massage lotion is popular for a good glide while still maintaining enough friction for an effective massage. Massage lotion is great for a full body Swedish massage while also being a useful tool for deep tissue or sports massage.

Massage lotion absorbs very quickly into the skin, making it beneficial for moisturizing, passing along the benefits of its ingredients, and making skin soft without leaving a greasy residue. One drawback is that the quick absorption requires frequent reapplication. Lotions, due to their multipurpose nature, are extremely useful for softening rough or dry skin. A more therapeutic massage lotion boosted with botanicals provides extra benefits for helping the skin heal.

Massage Creams

Massage cream is the thickest of all the massage lubricants, and second to oil as the most popular option for most modalities. Massage creams can range in their thicknesses, with some being available in containers with a pump, and others that come in jars and have to be scooped out. Like lotions, massage creams are made of a mixture of water and oils, as well as vitamins, oils, and other compounds, but have less water and are therefore much thicker. The main difference between massage creams and lotions is water content, which means that massage creams are thicker and can go longer without spoiling.

Massage creams are best for dry skin, due to their absorbability and high concentration of oils and other healing agents. Despite its thickness, massage cream actually penetrates the skin quite well and is effective in replacing skin moisture without damaging the skin’s lipid barrier. Like lotions, massage creams are great for various skin conditions and repairing damaged areas. Many therapists like to keep massage cream in a warmer for a slightly thinner consistency with a little more glide during sessions. Massage cream can be used for most modalities and is popular with clients because it avoids the greasy feeling that oil sometimes leaves behind. However, massage cream is best for deep tissue massage because the friction from the product heats up the skin and allows therapists to focus on a smaller muscle group.

Common Oils and Their Properties

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Here we'll go over a few common oils and their properties, particularly ones used in Earthlite’s own massage oils, lotions, and creams:

  • Sweet almond oil

  • Safflower oil

  • Sunflower oil

  • Avocado oil

  • Sesame seed oil

Sweet Almond Oil

Sweet almond oil is a powerhouse of an oil. It contains vitamin E, vitamin A, and monounsaturated fatty acids. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and protects the skin from wrinkles and other forms of damage. Vitamin A acts as a retinoid and stimulates the production of new skin cells and the fatty acids give sweet almond oil its moisturizing properties. Sweet almond oil is gentle on the skin and even provides relief from the damaging effects of sun exposure. The anti-inflammatory properties of sweet almond oil also make it great for skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Safflower Oil

Safflower oil also contains vitamin E and both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Safflower oil has a high concentration of linoleic acid- this means that safflower oil acts as an anti-inflammatory product but also helps balance sebum amounts in the skin. Safflower oil’s antioxidants protect from sun damage and free radicals, while its other properties hydrate skin and smooth out fine lines and wrinkles. It is a very stable oil which means it doesn’t go as rancid as easily as others.

Sunflower Oil

Sunflower Oil is light and non-greasy, which makes it ideal for clients with a sensitivity to those sensations. Sunflower oil also contains linoleic acid, but also palmitic acid and stearic acid, which rejuvenates skin and keeps it looking younger longer. Sunflower oil helps your skin clear away toxins and also repairs its natural lipid barrier. Sunflower oil also gets rid of acne-causing bacteria.

Jojoba Oil

Jojoba Oil works great as a carrier oil due to its absorbability. This also means that it is highly moisturizing and makes the skin feel soft and healthy. Jojoba oil is actually a wax, and it lasts longer without spoiling than other oils as well as being easy to wash out of sheets. Jojoba oil is also antibacterial and is therefore great for clients with acne.

Avocado Oil

Avocado Oil is rich in vitamins and other skin-saving ingredients. It contains vitamins A & E, as well as vitamin C, vitamin D, linoleic acid, beta-carotene, and beta-sitosterol. While containing many antioxidants that fight aging, Avocado oil also heals and prevents stretch marks by improving the elasticity of your skin.

Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed Oil is light and makes skin feel silky and hydrated. Grapeseed oil is antimicrobial, odorless, and full of vitamins and other anti-inflammatory agents. Grapeseed oil is also a great carrier oil, so it is commonly used in conjunction with jojoba oil for aromatherapy. Grapeseed oil is also used to calm acne and reduce the appearance of scars.

Sesame Seed Oil

Sesame Seed Oil has been used for healing in massage for thousands of years, particularly in Ayurvedic medicine. Sesame seed oil is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and can help get rid of many common skin pathogens. Sesame seed oil also helps produce collagen and improves the skin's elasticity.

So, Which Do I Choose?

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It's fairly evident that there is no right or wrong choice for massage. Ultimately, it depends on both the modality of massage and what makes the client comfortable. It might be that the client doesn’t want to feel greasy after a massage, but the therapist requires a lot of glide for an effective session, so they will settle on using massage gel. Communication is important, not just about preference but also with things like allergies. As a client, you should be sure to inform your therapist about any allergies, but especially nut or latex allergies, as many oils contain nut oil or oils that contain natural latex. Together, the client and practitioner can make the best choice about what works for them.