woman dispensing topical product

A web search for “massage topicals” returns results in the hundreds of thousands, all with different properties to recommend them — consistency, scent (or no scent), base ingredients, active ingredients, container type and more. Different brands may produce topicals with similar qualities, so one good way to determine the best topicals for your needs is to consider the specific needs of your clients.

The following is a list of some of today’s popular massage topical ingredients, and which types of clients are most likely to benefit from their unique properties.

For Clients with Muscle Aches: Arnica

Arnica, derived from the Arnica montana flower, is an ingredient often found in topicals designed for easing muscle soreness and the pain of muscle strains. Popular as a traditional remedy for pain and bruising, arnica has some scientific evidence to recommend it, including a 2019 Russian study that showed it reduced pain severity in patients who had undergone tonsillectomies.

Your athletic clients, or any clients who deal with chronic pain, can especially benefit from topicals containing arnica. You can also use them on yourself to deal with pain from overuse injuries.

For Heat Therapy: Capsaicin

Capsaicin is a common ingredient in over-the-counter pain-relief topicals; it is the compound found in chili peppers that gives them their heat. It provides the heat in warming topicals that can help penetrate into the skin and interrupt pain signaling to the brain.

Some people may be sensitive to capsaicin, so it’s best to test it on a small area first before using it as part of a massage.

For clients dealing with chronic pain, it can be helpful to offer them capsaicin-containing topicals to purchase and take home, to extend the benefits of their pain relief beyond the massage session.

For Cooling Therapy: Menthol

Derived from peppermint oil, this compound offers the cooling effect found in many cold-therapy topicals. Cooling therapy can be helpful for easing the pain of acute muscle injuries and is often found in topicals designed for athletes.

A 2018 research review in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics noted that “As a topical agent, [menthol] acts as a counter-irritant by imparting a cooling effect and by initially stimulating nociceptors and then desensitizing them,” concluding that topically applied menthol has potential as an alternative to opioid analgesic drugs.

For Geriatric Clients: Shea Butter

It’s best to use a very basic, light massage oil or lotion when massaging seniors, since their skin is often thinner and more prone to irritation. Many such massage topical products contain shea butter, a compound extracted from kernels of the shea tree; shea butter appears frequently in lotions and other topicals due to its soothing, moisturizing qualities.

For Easing Pain and Stress: CBD

CBD — cannabidiol, derived from the industrial hemp plant — has become a popular ingredient in many types of topicals designed to relieve pain. CBD works by binding to the body’s endocannabinoid receptors, which helps ease pain and facilitate relaxation. So far, formal studies of these products have not found any negative side effects to CBD use, but the body of research into them continues to grow.

Generally, CBD products containing less than 0.3% THC are legal, but you should check with your state’s massage therapy governing body to make sure it is legal, and within your scope of practice, for you to use these products during a massage.

For Clients in Need of Stress Relief: Chamomile

The herb chamomile, a staple of traditional medicine due to its anti-inflammatory properties, is typically found in topicals designed to soothe and calm, sometimes combined with lavender.

“Chamomile has been used as an herbal medication since ancient times, is still popular today and probably will continue to be used in the future because it contains various bioactive phytochemicals that could provide therapeutic effects,” wrote the authors of “Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future,” published in Molecular Medicine Reports in 2010.

For Massage in General: Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a popular base ingredient in topicals designed for massage therapy. It is light, easily absorbed, non-greasy and generally safe and well-tolerated, even for people with nut allergies. (However, some people are allergic to coconut, so it’s always best to ask about allergies during your intake to avoid any problems.)

Fractionated coconut oil can be used on its own as a massage lubricant, or as a carrier oil blended with essential oils.

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is MASSAGE Magazine’s associate editor.