Have you read the ingredients label on every massage oil, cream or other lubricant that you use in sessions?
As a massage therapist, you do not want to expose clients—or yourself—to potentially harmful products. Choosing massage topicals with care can help you avoid possible negative effects.
Pure and Natural
Debra Kizilcan, massage therapist and owner of Empowerment Hypnosis, firmly believes in “pure and natural” when it comes to massage products.
For the last 15 years, Kizilcan has used sesame, grape seed and coconut oils, alone or in combination, for her clients. By focusing on products with simple and often single ingredients, Kizilcan ensures her clients will have a positive experience with no adverse reactions following a massage. She also recommends going organic whenever possible and tends to avoid any product containing nut oil.
“Some clients could have peanut allergies, so you have to be careful,” Kizilcan said.
One ingredient that sends up a red flag for Kizilcan: parabens. The potential for harm to her clients’ health prompts Kizilcan to nix the use of any form of parabens.
“It would be like applying layers and layers of chemicals to the skin,” she said.
According to the website of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), parabens are “a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products” and may be used to “prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold.” Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben come under the paraben umbrella.
The law does not require the FDA to approve the ingredients, including preservatives, used in cosmetics, a category that includes massage lotions and creams. Additionally, the agency reports having no information that suggests negative side effects in humans who use products with parabens, but that it is exploring studies for more information.
However, some research studies have reported that exposure to parabens in personal care products may stimulate the growth of cancer cells. One study cited parabens as known “endocrine disrupting chemicals” and linked them to increased susceptibility to breast cancer.
Another study reported that, in addition to parabens, phthalates, triclosan and benzophenone-3 (BP-3) have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity in adolescent girls.
Consider Clients’ Conditions
Kizilcan provides another good reason to avoid chemical and non-natural ingredients in massage products. She noted that clients may present with different health issues, so it’s imperative to exercise caution when choosing products.
For instance, someone undergoing chemotherapy might be especially sensitive to certain ingredients. Using products with these ingredients could trigger allergic or other negative reactions and affect recovery.
In addition to parabens, nut oils should also be used with caution, according to Dan Hein, licensed massage therapist at Synergy Spa & Aesthetics.
“Both ingredients are known for causing unexpected allergic reactions that aren’t always apparent until after the massage is complete,” Hein said. “Added fragrances should be avoided in oils. Instead, aromatherapy options may be offered using very small amounts of non-irritating essential oils the client can inhale during the treatment.”
Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are two other chemical agents that dry the skin, Hein pointed out. “While they may not cause an allergic reaction alone, repeated use may cause serious drying or rash on the skin of the therapist—making a massage much less enjoyable to the recipient.”
Good for the Client, Good for You
While lotions and creams directly affect your clients during massage, they also penetrate your skin. Depending on your schedule, you could be in contact with massage products frequently during the course of a week.
Tracey Silber, owner of Hands of Heart Massage and a 20-year veteran in the massage business, has always been aware that what she puts on her clients, she also absorbs into her skin.
“I have battled with unknown allergies [and] sensitivities to products my whole life. I have always looked for creams that are paraben-free,” Silber said. “Today there are many creams which do not contain them. By avoiding parabens, I am avoiding possible negative skin reactions in both me and my clients.”
Silber also avoids products that contain oil, preferring water-based creams instead, which are less messy and more environmentally friendly.
“As the daughter of a dry cleaner, it terrifies me to think about spilling oil on an expensive Persian rug, exotic wood floor, or having a shirt or blouse stained from oil. I avoid this by using creams. Paraben-free, of course,” she said.
“The creams come out of our sheets [easily]. Oil only comes out if the proper cleaning products are used,” she added. “Otherwise, they are baked in, in the dryer, and the sheets begin to have a rancid odor.”
Out of consideration for her clients, Silber also chooses not to use products with fragrances. “There will always be someone who doesn’t like it or is allergic to it,” she noted.
Truth in Labeling?
Checking labels should help you make wise decisions when it comes to massage products, right? Maybe.
Kizilcan makes sure the products she uses contain no additives; if the product is organic, she looks for the green-and-white certified organic label.
Silber plays it safe and purchases her products from known and reputable sources. Even though it costs a little more, she often orders products directly from the manufacturer or from well-respected industry retailers.
“I have ordered from eBay and Amazon in the past and have had no problems,” she said. “However, in the back of my mind I do wonder if the ingredients listed are actually in the product.”
Marie Gale, good manufacturing practices expert, said if you don’t understand something on the label, by all means, call the company.
“The ingredient declaration on the label should be written in common English, although Latin is often used for botanical ingredients,” she said. “Given the amount of information available on ‘what is that ingredient,’ I think that while the responsibility for providing the ingredient declaration falls to the manufacturer, the responsibility for understanding the ingredient declaration falls to the consumer.
“Of course,” Gale added, “those companies that go the extra mile and explain all of their ingredients to their consumers are generally better regarded and trusted by consumers.”
Manufacturers maintain Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for their products, Gale added. However, this information is intended for those making the products and provides specifications regarding the materials they are using and handling; for example, how to handle spills, guidelines for correct temperatures and toxic levels.
“MSDS aren’t intended for end-use consumers—that information comes from the ingredient declaration.”
Knowing which ingredients to avoid ensures you treat clients’ safety—and your own—as a top priority. Choosing products free of chemicals or potential allergens complements the good work you do with your hands and enhances your commitment to health and wellness.
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. She has written many articles for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Create a Brand and Gain Clients with Private-Label Products” and “Peppermint Oil Puts the Holiday in Massage.”