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Choose The Right Lubricant for Every Massage
by Brandi Schlossberg
Perfectly dimmed lights, the subtle hum of calming music, the soft coddling of fresh blankets, the support of a well-made massage table—attention to such details can elevate a good massage to a deeply healing experience. Although the power of the massage therapist’s personal touch is at the heart of each bodywork session, the tools he or she chooses can enhance that individual touch.
Inside almost every massage therapist’s toolbox is one extremely important item: massage lubricant. In fact, many practitioners carry an array of lubricants to meet the varying needs of their clientele, from gels and oils to creams and body butters. Others find a favorite and stick with it. But with the vast number of massage lubricants on the market today, it can be tough to pick products that please both client and practitioner.
We spoke to leading massage-lubricant manufacturers to decipher the make-up of massage lubricants, and how the ingredients in these products can affect clients’ healing process.
Pain is a primary motivation of many people who seek massage. Whether a client suffered an injury, underwent surgery, simply slept wrong, or allowed stress to stiffen his muscles, massage appointments are made in the hope of finding relief from pain. As the hands of the massage therapist begin to ease aches and untie knots, the application of a pain-relieving massage lubricant can enhance the process.
Read the list of ingredients on a natural pain-relieving lubricant, and you’re likely to find that the active ingredient is Arnica montana. This mountain plant, common to the northwestern United States and central Europe, has long served a pain-relieving role in homeopathic medicine.
“Arnica montana is used homeopathically for relief of muscle aches and stiffness due to minor injuries, overexertion, falls and blows,” says Deborah L. Kelly, public-relations manager for Boiron USA, the manufacturer of Boiron Arnica Cream and Boiron Arnica Gel. “It also reduces pain, swelling and discoloration from bruises.”
According to Kelly, pain-relieving lubricants made with Arnica are ideal for touch therapy because Arnica is an all-natural ingredient with no reported side-effects or drug interactions.
“Generations of athletes, trainers and parents have long enjoyed the natural relief that Arnica provides,” she says.
However, massage lubricants containing Arnica, as well as other pain-relieving ingredients, should be avoided if the client has any open wounds or otherwise damaged skin.
Kelly described the Arnica cream as odorless with a light texture and a soothing, moisturizing effect. She says the gel has a non-greasy, non-sticky texture and a cool, refreshing effect.
Besides Arnica, menthol is another ingredient you might find on the list of a pain-relieving lubricants’ active components. Menthol can be manufactured synthetically or derived naturally from mint oils. It’s widely used to relieve minor sore throats, and has the same effect on sore muscles.
Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel is one massage lubricant that taps the power of menthol.
“It’s designed to relieve pain from arthritis, sore muscles and joints, to help reduce discomfort,” says Craig A. Ure, marketing director for Biofreeze. “Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel has sufficient glide and work time [it will last throughout the session] for most treatments.”
Ure also serves as marketing director for Prossage, a company that offers the pain-relieving massage lubricant known as Prossage Heat. Menthol is the active ingredient here, too, along with lanolin, lavender oil and safflower-seed oil.
“Prossage Heat is designed to have a more controllable glide than regular oil and therefore has a higher viscosity,” Ure says. “It’s more of an ointment, like a thick oil.”
This lubricant, according to Ure, is specifically designed for deep-tissue, myofascial and trigger-point therapy. It produces a warm effect on the client’s skin and muscles when combined with the friction of massage.
While menthol and Arnica are the heavy hitters in pain-relieving lubricants, there are many components that could make up a salve to soothe sore muscles. For instance, a pain-relieving lubricant might also contain extracts of ginger, violet leaf, eucalyptus, wintergreen or rosemary—all known to produce pain-relieving effects.
One ingredient touted in recent years for its pain-relieving effect is methylsulfonylmethane, commonly known as MSM. Massage lubricant CRYODERM, which comes in gel, spray and roll-on formulations, contains MSM and a blend of Arnica, Boswella, eucalyptus, ilex, menthol and peppermint oil. “MSM is a naturally occurring nutrient found in all healthy tissue,” says Lloyd List, the massage therapist who created the lubricant and is the company’s president. “Studies at the University of Oregon Medical School show that MSM has a wide range of pharmacologic actions, including membrane penetration, anti inflammation and local analgesia.”
List says it’s essential for any pain-relieving lubricant to address the pain-spasm cycle. “Anytime you have an injury or hypertonicity, there’s pain. Pain causes involuntary muscle contraction, which causes reduction in blood flow [and creates] ischemia; this causes buildup of metabolic waste, which causes cramping and pain, hence the pain-spasm cycle.
According to List, his lubricant addresses the pain-spasm cycle by doing the following: “After applying CRYODERM the client feels a few moments of cold, then a stingy, burning type sensation which overwhelms the topical proprioceptors and elicits the Gate Control Theory, blocking the deeper pain signal [which results in] the muscle no longer [needing] to be in an involuntary contraction. Blood flow then returns to normal, correcting the ischemic condition. Thepeppermint oil stimulates the vascular and lymph system [and results in the removal of] metabolic waste. Menthol creates an ice-cold sensation that can be palpated and lasts for hours, other ingredients create an anesthetic effect, and others begin reducing inflammation and bruising.”
Mother Nature in the mix
The power of plants can come into play in a memorable massage session that involves a lubricant infused with vitamins and extracts of herbs, fruit or other plants. Mother Nature not only offers the analgesic treasures found in most pain-relieving lubricants, but she also provides a wide array of natural ingredients that benefit massage clients in numerous ways, from improving circulation and hydrating the skin to calming a worried mind and alleviating fatigue.
“The goal is to give your clients a great experience that meets their goals,” says Jean Shea, founder and CEO of BIOTONE and the formulator of BIOTONE products. “Those goals could be different for each person, as one client may want pain relief, and another may want relaxation, stress relief and pampering.”
For the client who wants to walk away from the massage table with smooth, hydrated skin, one of Mother Nature’s treats is sea kelp, Shea says. She also listed Aloe vera, Roman chamomile, clover blossom, blue malva, carrot oil, wheat germ oil and avocado oil as key ingredients in massage lubricants that aim to soothe and soften skin.
But that’s not all nature has to offer when it comes to healing and pampering the skin. Vitamin E plays an important role in massage lubricants, too. It has an antioxidant effect and promotes healthy skin so powerfully that it is often used to reduce scarring and stretch marks.
Herb, fruit and plant extracts in massage lubricants can also help produce a desirable effect on a client’s mental state, especially in conjunction with healing touch. Lavender, widely known to have a calming effect, is a popular ingredient in massage lubricants. Cucumber is also soothing to both body and mind, while rosemary, Bay Laurel and lemon peel can have a rejuvenating, stimulating effect that helps alleviate fatigue.
By carefully selecting massage lubricants that meet the most common client goals, the practitioner can rest assured that nature is on her side when it comes to providing memorable, healing bodywork.
Lubrication for lymph
The unprecedented growth in the popularity of touch therapies is directly related to the newfound abundance of massage lubricants on the market. This is good news for practitioners, as more competition makes for better products. It also means there are massage lubricants that cater to specialized modalities.
Baar Products is the manufacturer of one such lubricant, known as LymphoCare, which aids in manual lymph drainage. This product was specifically crafted to assist in improving the flow of lymph throughout the lymphatic system, thereby helping to rid the body of toxins.
With ingredients such as rose hips, olive oil, castor oil and peanut oil, the manufacturer of this lubricant aims to not only enhance lymphatic circulation, but also to relax muscle spasms, relieve nervous tension, improve overall circulation and relieve stress.
For a touch technique that calls for maximum glide, an oil may be the lubricant of choice. Most massage oils are composed primarily of a carrier oil, such as olive oil, grapeseed oil or peanut oil. Practitioners should experiment with various carrier oils to find the viscosity that provides the perfect glide and absorption level for their particular practice.
“I use a combination of peanut and olive oil, with either a bitter almond or lavender essential oil,” says Kate Jordan, a massage therapist for more than 30 years and developer of Bodywork for the Childbearing Year. “For clients who can tolerate no scent I use grapeseed oil, since many seemingly fragrance-free oils still may not be well-tolerated by the extremely sensitive.”
An unscented carrier oil is a good choice for sensitive clients, but for those who enjoy a little aroma in their bodywork, there’s a bouquet of essential oils to choose from. These volatile oils are obtained through the distillation of a plant’s flowers, seeds, stems, leaves, roots, bark or wood.
A little goes a long way when it comes to essential oils, and they should never be used undiluted on the skin. A small quantity of essential oil is typically mixed with a carrier oil to create the scented massage lubricant. However, not all clients will be able to tolerate essential oil on their skin. It’s a safe bet to steer clear of using these powerful oils on patients who are pregnant or undergoing medical treatment, unless you’re professionally trained in aromatherapy. It’s also important to make sure each client is comfortable with the essential oils you plan to use before the session begins.
“It’s good practice to have clients fill out a contraindication form that asks about allergies, sensitivities and medical conditions,” says Shea. “You should have a few different types of product on hand, so you can suit everyone’s needs.”
The perfect product
Although the sheer volume of massage lubricants on the market may make a practitioner simply want to stick to the “tried and true,” it’s possible to elevate a massage session by seeking out lubricants that could better match each client’s needs.
One person may come to the practitioner with an aching need for pain relief, and another may be searching more for mental relaxation. By knowing what each client’s needs are and understanding the actions of the active ingredients of various massage lubricants, it’s entirely possible for the massage therapist to pull the perfect lubricant out of his or her toolbox.
Brandi Schlossberg is an avid bodywork client and full-time journalist based in Reno, Nevada.