A towel under bottles and jars of lotions, with the phrase expired massage oil superimposed.

In your massage practice, cleanliness is always a priority.

Equipment and tools are kept in good working order; linens are washed with antibacterial detergents, and a controlled climate ensures client comfort.

That same attitude should apply to the topical products used for massage. Oils, creams, lotions and gels can affect clients’ skin, so paying attention to these products’ shelf life can mean the difference between an effective, safe massage and a sub-optimal experience.

Temperature, Light & Air

According to Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac, owner of Acupuncture Jerusalem, temperature is one of the most critical factors that could impact the shelf life of massage oil and other products.

“Storing massage products at room temperature is necessary because prolonged exposure of any kind of extreme temperature in either direction is likely to ruin your massage product and subvert its expected shelf life,” she said. “Light can similarly influence shelf life. Too much or too little may drastically reduce the shelf life, depending on the product in question.”

Bacharach added that an improperly sealed or punctured container could quickly ruin a massage oil, cream or other topical application.

Ingredients & Combinations

Ingredients may also affect the lifespan of a massage product, said Bacharach.

“Many companies produce massage products without thoroughly examining the effects and reaction that the ingredients can have long-term when blended together,” she said. “This is particularly common when a massage product contains both natural and chemical ingredients.”

She also noted that some mass-produced oils and other massage enhancers are typically cheaper to produce but may contain non-sustainable ingredients, which are more dangerous and prone to decay.

Stable vs. Unstable

Dorene Petersen, Dip.NT, Dip.Acu, RH (AHG),the founder, president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS), noted that base oils or lotions and essential oils all “interact with oxygen, light, heat and water and alter and/or oxidize over time.”

“Shelf life is dependent on the constituents found within the raw material. For example, essential oils that contain limonene (citrus oils) are very unstable and oxidize and spoil quickly,” Petersen said. “Likewise, any essential oils that contain citral, such as Melissa officinalis, should be used with care regarding shelf life. Citral, which consists of geranial and neral, becomes even more skin sensitizing if oxidized.”

According to Petersen, the chemical components or constituents determine how an essential oil evaporates and deteriorates. Terpenes, a group of chemical components found in citrus oils, spoil easily, and oils with a high ester content, such as lavender and bergamot, can become acidic if they contain any water due to “careless separation following distillation.”

Other oils, like peppermint, may spoil over time due to resinification, a process which makes the oils thicker and more viscous.

On the other hand, some oils improve with age, according to Petersen. These include vetiver, ylang ylang and patchouli. Additionally, oils with high alcohol content, such as geranium, are relatively stable and may be stored for long periods of time, she noted.

What About CBD Topicals?

Some therapists have begun using CBD massage oil and other topicals in their practices. The shelf life for these products depends on the formula, according to Petersen. If the CBD is in a base oil, the shelf life would depend on the type of base oil.

“If it is a cream or lotion without any chemical preservative, but with the addition of vitamin E or rosmanol, a preservative from rosemary, the shelf life could be as long as twelve months if stored in a cool location,” she said. “If the CBD is an alcohol extract, it should last indefinitely. If it contains terpenes, the shelf life is reduced and would be about three to six months.” 

Petersen recommends storing all essential oils and creams in a cool location and in dark or opaque glass, not plastic. “Also, ensure containers are well filled, as the oxygen in the containers will start to break down and change the constituents.”

Labeling Language

Product labeling language might cause some confusion for buyers of topical products.

“Shelf life starts for a natural material at the time of harvesting. ‘True’ shelf life means the life of the product from the time it was harvested to the time it is no longer viable. Usually this is indicated by the aroma or look of the product,” Petersen said. “‘Labeled’ shelf life is the date the producer or company who bottled the oil puts on the label, regardless of the harvest date.”

Bacharach pointed out that the “use by” date indicates that the company or brand in question cannot vouch for the integrity of the product beyond that date, and the product should be discarded.

“Massage products cannot be legally sold beyond their ‘use by’ date because the ingredients in the product may have degraded by that point to a level that is no longer safe for contact with skin,” she said.

How Can You Tell if a Massage Oil or Other Topical Has Gone Bad?

In spite of quality ingredients and your best efforts, massage products sometimes do go bad, Petersen said.

“A massage therapist can usually tell if a product has surpassed its shelf life by the look, aroma and feel,” she said. “A rancid vegetable oil has an ‘off’ aroma and oxidized essential oils also smell different. The color may change as well, or the product may thicken and become cloudy.”

She advises massage therapists to inspect all products on a regular basis and become familiar with “organoleptic” assessment — which means acting on, or involving the use of, your sense organs to assess a product’s condition.

If a therapist is uncertain as to the viability of a product, Bacharach recommends a simple test. “Apply a small amount of product to your wrist, wait fifteen to thirty minutes and see if any negative reaction occurs on the skin. If so, you know the product is unsafe. If not, the product may in fact be safe for use,” she said.

To Use or Not to Use?

Petersen emphasized that it’s never safe to use a product that has surpassed its shelf life. “During a massage, products are absorbed via the skin and also inhaled. Oxidized or rancid products will impact the experience and can cause skin sensitivity issues externally and nutrient absorption issues internally,” she said.

Bacharach advises therapist to choose massage oil and other topical products wisely. Find a brand that uses essential and carrier oils, as well as other natural ingredients, in their formulation, she suggested. “Additionally, try to avoid creating your own oil blends and other massage products unless you have experience in this area.”

Massage Oils and Topicals: The Bottom Line

Make sure you observe the expiration dates on massage oil and other topical products — but even if a product hasn’t expired, your senses can often tell you when it is past its prime.

About the Author

Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. Her articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “How to Sharpen Your Sales Skills for the Holiday Season” and “I’m in Massage School. Is It Too Early to Start Networking?