Lotions and Oils and Creams and Gels (Oh My!)

In massage school, students are encouraged to work with different massage mediums (the term used for the various lubricants placed on the body) so that they learn what works best for them. But what is the big difference between all of these mediums? To the uneducated, they might appear rather similar in function, but the fact is that different mediums can make a significant impact in how well a practitioner is able to perform a massage. In this post, I'll give a brief examination of each of the more common massage mediums and demonstrate why they might be preferred for certain styles of massage.

Lotions, an emulsion of oil and water, are perhaps the most common medium used for massage therapy. They are easy to dispense from a pump bottle, come in a wide variety of pleasant scents or can be easily scented with essential oils, can include herbal and floral extracts for skin and muscle health, and are often the first medium with which many therapists become familiar. Massage lotions differ from normal hand and body lotion in that they are specifically formulated to absorb more slowly than the regular kind. Because massage lotions do still absorb more quickly than most of the other mediums, however, they are often the first choice for therapists who perform deep tissue work, as the glide on the client's body will be reduced as the lotion begins to absorb. One thing that some therapists dislike about lotion is the fact that it contains a significant water component (generally around 2/3 water to 1/3 oil), which means that it can cool an area down fairly quickly, even if the lotion is placed in a warmer ahead of time. Due to this, some practitioners choose to use lotions only in the summer when their clients may already be hot from the outdoors and will appreciate the cooling effect it provides.

Creams, another emulsion with more oil in the mixture than water, are becoming increasingly popular. They are nearly as versatile as lotions and can also include beneficial extracts or be scented with essential oils. Creams provide a very silky glide and are favored for Swedish work, in which long, flowing strokes comprise a large portion of the massage and it is desirable for the strokes to be mostly uninterrupted. Because they do not absorb as readily as lotions, creams are ideal for this function, since the therapist does not need to pause frequently to reapply them. Practitioners also find that creams do not cool the area being worked on quite as quickly, which the client generally appreciates as well. The downside to creams is that, depending on the ratio of oil to water in the emulsion, many of them are too thick to be dispensed from a pump bottle and must either be dispensed via a squeezable tube or from a small container with a screw-on lid. Some therapists find creams difficult for this reason because, unless they have a tube which can dispense the cream, they must be sure that a fresh supply of cream is placed in a clean container for each different client in order to maintain ethical hygiene standards.

Massage oils are favored for several styles, including Swedish and deep tissue, due to the fact that they are plant-based, provide long-lasting glide, and are extremely beneficial to the client's skin. Many practitioners prefer a single plant oil such as coconut, jojoba, avocado, or sweet almond, whereas others prefer blends of several plant oils that give them a specific viscosity. While oils are not absorbed as easily as either lotions or creams, the amount used can be more easily customized, especially if the oil must be poured into the hand rather than dispensed through a pump. In addition to this, oils retain heat well if they are placed in a warmer, making for a luxurious sensation when they are applied to the skin. Many practitioners find this to be a great treat for their clients in the winter, when some people have a hard time warming up in the cold weather. A difficulty with massage oils is that, unless they are specifically formulated to be dispersible in water, they can be a challenge to wash out of sheets and other linens. Some spa companies do sell sheets that are oil-resistant, and there are detergents out there designed to release oils from linens, but the simple fact is that sheets used consistently with oil will become stained much more readily than sheets used with lotions, creams, or gels. Another consideration is that some clients do not appreciate feeling oily after they've received a massage, which may mean that the practitioner will either need to offer them warm, moist towels with which to wipe off, or will need to provide shower facilities for after the session.

Gels are a more recently developed massage medium and are a water-based lubricant. Because of this, they lack the same moisturizing properties that the former three mediums have, but they are excellent for deep tissue work, sports massage, or other styles in which it is desirable to create friction and heat to loosen tight muscles. They are not as ideal for relaxing massage, such as Swedish. Gels also are not as easy to customize in terms of scent because essential oils do not mix well in the watery medium, so spas that encourage their therapists to customize scents for their clients may avoid the use of gels. And, similar to lotions, gels will cool down an area much more quickly unless the practitioner continues applying friction while the gel is on the skin. Advantages to massage gel include the fact that it does not leave an oily feeling on the skin, usually does not stain sheets, and provides better coverage than lotions or creams so that the practitioner does not need to use as much.

Some practitioners get creative and use combinations of the various mediums to suit their tastes as well as the style of massage they practice. Others stick with only one medium during a session but offer the client their choice between two or three that are available. Still others rotate what they use dependent upon the season, special deals being offered at their practice, the style of massage performed during a session, or the needs of their own skin.

What is your favorite medium for massage? Do you have a story about how the medium used impacted your session? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!