Leeann Hysaw has earned 11 years of experience in massage therapy having graduated from Lincoln Technical Institute in 2007.
Different Lubricants for Different Types of Massage
Massage therapists use a wide variety of lubricants to perform massages. Sometimes the type they use depends on personal preference or therapy style. One therapist may prefer to use one lotion over another or gel instead of oil or cream, and this can come down to several reasons. One common reason is that they are accustomed to that particular lubricant, or perhaps it is required by their workplace.
Often, the lubricant a therapist uses is determined by what type of massage they are performing, or whether the client has any allergies or sensitivities to certain things. The main reason why different types of massage need different lubricants is that some techniques, like deep tissue work, work best with a certain level of tackiness. For example, deep tissue requires a thickness that allows for better drag to give the right results.
Compression and Stretching: No Lubricant
There are types of massage techniques that do not require the use of any lubricant at all due to the way the technique is performed. For example, if a therapist was performing a massage type that utilizes mostly stretching or compression techniques, then there is normally no need for a lubricant to help the hands or elbows of a therapist glide against the surface of a client’s skin.
In the case of primarily stretching or compression-based massages, skin-to-skin gliding is not always used. Certain sports massage techniques may use this though most will use a mix of compression, stretching and traditional massage with lubricants. Also, a chair massage can be performed without a lubricant if only the back is being worked on and it is in a public setting like a mall.
Dry Massage: Little to No Lubricant
A dry massage may incorporate compression or stretching, but this does not necessarily exclude the gliding of a therapist's skin or other tools across a client’s skin. A message like a Himalayan salt stone is often performed with little to no lubricant due to the mineral properties of the stones breaking down easily when the stones are moistened. Massages like this are performed by slowly gliding the dry stones across the client’s body, letting the heat of the stones warm the salts and minerals within it along with the skin of the client so that the body's oils naturally move the stone along. This creates a unique massage where the drag and traction of the stone against the skin is a part of the overall impact of the treatment.
When a client’s skin is particularly dry or does not produce enough natural oils, the therapist may select a specialty oil, like coconut oil or another type, and use a small amount on the skin of the client to help the stones along in place of the body’s own oils.
Oils are used by therapists often when they are hoping for an easy lubricant for mixing. For example, if they are performing an aromatherapy massage, they may choose to base the essential oil in an oil lubricant. Essential oils can be easily mixed into other lubricants as well, but the fluid nature of oil makes the process a little easier.
Another reason a therapist may choose oil stems from the very fluid state it has. Oil has low viscosity and that means that when it is used on a client’s skin, it will produce very little drag when the therapist’s hands are applied. This is great for relaxation massages where long fluid strokes are used to create a calming and relaxing impact since it would not require the therapist to remove their hands very often. Instead, the therapist is able to keep their hands on the client for a longer time and maintain a connection. This helps the client relax more since they do not feel the therapist constantly moving away.
A downside to using oil is that many people consider the feel of it on their skin to be unpleasant. Oil does not sink into the skin as readily as other lubricants and tends to stay on the skin's surface, making it feel heavy.
Lotion is a good option for therapists to use because they are often hypoallergenic and can offer a little more viscosity than oil. This gives a little more drag to the massage which can be good for working trigger points and with myofascial work while still allowing for a good amount of glide. It’s a great way of combining the pros of both oils and creams.
However, the therapist will need to stop and pump lotion out more frequently than with oil, and this lubricant is a bit harder to mix with essential oils. However, it is absorbed by the skin easily after some time and does not leave the client feeling as greasy in the end. It is often a common choice for many therapists and studios.
Cream has the highest viscosity of all the lubricants commonly used to perform massages. This allows for the greatest amount of drag on the tissues which is great when performing massages that focus mainly on trigger point work, myofascial work or work with friction like with sports massages. This can be used with relaxation work. However, the amount of the cream needed would create a cost efficiency problem. The cream also tends to be the most expensive out of all the lubricants used in general, so it is rare for therapists to use this product in that way. Overall, cream is great for deep work and friction work, but therapists will tend to use it only for very specific circumstances given its tacky consistency and price.
Other Things to Consider
There are lots of lubricants for a massage therapist to choose from, and each has its own pros and cons. A choice between one or the other often comes down to factors like the client’s preference, allergies and what an employer decides to keep in stock. Many massage establishments keep more than one type of lubricant in stock since there is so much variation in massage techniques, so finding an alternative for you should rarely ever be an issue.
Another factor to consider is that certain lubricants may have fragrances to them. Aromatherapy lotions and oils obviously come with very strong scents, but sometimes basic lubricants do as well. I have seen some in pine, lemon or mint fragrances, all of which were not labeled for aromatherapy. While most establishments have their therapist use a general hypoallergenic lubricant that avoids most allergens, including fragrance-related ones, it is still best to let the therapist know if there are any smells that bother you or cause you to have trouble breathing. This is important during a massage session since most occur in small, closed rooms where the smell often lingers heavily in the air.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.