The Lava Shell Massage Technique: Therapy from the Sea

Nature provides massage therapists with a variety of practice aids, from essential oils to hot stones. Now therapists have a new natural tool that delivers heated massage, courtesy of the sea.

When massage therapist Lucia Barros introduced Lava Shell massage to her Orlando, Florida, practice, regular client Jeanette Bigney was eager to try it. Having been a massage client for 10 years, Bigney had experienced a number of different massage modalities.

“The warmth helped me relax,” she said of her Lava Shell session. “Just seeing the shells makes you envision the ocean, something you don’t normally do with massage.”

Lava Shells were created by Dan Young, a career inventor with more than 55 patents to his credit. The idea of using shells for massage began to germinate when Young’s 9-year-old daughter received a gift basket containing a tiger-striped clamshell. In the Philippines, Young had watched islanders discard these beautiful shells after scooping meat from them. His inventive mind saw the makings of a natural massage tool.

“They’re the right size to fit comfortably in the therapist’s hand [and] they polish down to a perfectly smooth surface ideal for working on the skin,” Young explained. “They’re extremely durable and beautiful,” and since they are nonporous, they are easy to clean and sanitize, he added.

The shells are hand-selected for size and structural integrity, and then sanded down so no rough or jagged edges remain. They then undergo a bonding process whereby a flexible, industrial epoxy designed to expand as the shell heats and contract as it cools is applied to the edges of the shell, sealing them together. Finally, a hole is drilled into the top so the Lava Charge—a gel mix and salt-water solution—can be inserted.

To provide a thermal source, Young combined ingredients, including natural minerals, black lava, algae and dried sea kelp, to create the patented, self-heating Lava Gel. When this mixture is combined with a salt-water solution, the result is controlled heat.

Lava Shells are the newest addition to Spa Revolutions’ line of PerfectSense spa products. Melissa Mao, vice president of marketing and business development for Inspired Sciences, the marketing company under which Spa Revolutions was founded, said  preparing the Lava Shell for use is “a simple process, requiring only the shell and cap and a Lava Charge.”

The therapist removes the cap from the shell, places the charge packet inside, flattening it against the bottom, and then adds the salt-water solution. Once these steps are completed, the therapist sets the shell aside to allow the gel mixture to absorb the water and the shell to heat for five minutes.  Cleanup involves discarding the used charge packet, rinsing the shell with soap and water, sanitizing it with rubbing alcohol or an astringent and setting it in a display or drying rack.

Thermal abilities
Mao pointed out the shells do not necessarily replace hot stones, but can be used as an alternative for heated massage. “The primary difference is that of heat and, therefore, touch time,” she said. While hot stones cool after several minutes of use, Lava Shells generate their own heat continuously, allowing the therapist to maximize client contact by 30 percent.

“With Lava Shells you can control the heat,” Mao said. “When they are still, the heat subsides. When they are moving, [the movement] adds more heat.”

Since the shells generate their own heat, it’s not necessary to have a large supply available—and because the shells retain heat without any electrical or supplemental source, they are quite portable and do not require a roaster, microwave or towel caddy.

Tanya Illustrisimo, spa director for Estrelia Spa at the Viceroy Palm Springs Hotel in Palm Springs, California, participated in the Lava Shells’ pre-launch product testing last summer. In the process of creating a protocol for the spa, she focused on developing a technique whereby the heat from the shell relaxed muscles, after which a therapist massaged the area.

Guests at the Estrelia Spa have given their stamp of approval to this new tool. “A lot of people like to have couples’ hot-stone [and now, Lava Shell] massage in their room,” Illustrisimo said. “Guests love it, and therapists are excited about it.” Poolside massage with the shells is also quite popular at Estrelia.
While clients enjoy the benefits of Lava Shell massage, therapists also express satisfaction with the product. And, according to Mao, the shells provide a versatile and simple way to add value and effectiveness to any massage technique.

“It offers [therapists] the ability to perform massage strokes without having to stress the joints in their hands, the chance to perform a wide variety of additional techniques and to offer their client thermal therapy in addition to the other benefits of massage,” she said.

Massage therapists can use Lava Shells during facials, manicures and pedicures and as part of a body scrub or body wrap. Therapists may also find the shells help prevent muscle fatigue and relieve stress on joints that performing deeper massage work can cause.

Training in the technique
Before utilizing Lava Shells in massage, proper education is key. A training kit, including product and safety information, is shipped first. A CD provides a visual explanation of the process, and therapists have access to a trainer from Spa Revolutions who can offer guidance and ensure proper technique is being used.

“After this kit is received, [therapists] are required to undergo a mandatory training and then test the shells in order to use them safely,” Mao said. “Our level of knowledge and training of the product must be met prior to a customer’s order being shipped.”

Illustrisimo and another therapist underwent training as part of the pre-launch testing. “You have to get used to the way the shells feel in your hands,” she said. “If you are continuously practicing, two weeks are sufficient to perfect the treatment method.”

Barros stumbled across the shells while searching online for other massage products. “As soon as I saw them, I knew they would be different from anything else on the market, yet with the same concept as hot stones,” she said. “The use of the Lava Shells is relatively simple to pick up if you are accustomed to working with hot stones.”

After practicing for one day, Barros felt quite comfortable working with the unique shape and weight of the shells.

Kits for therapists and clients
Mao explained that a therapist would use between one and four shells for a one-hour massage, in addition to one disposable Lava Charge for each shell.

Composed of all-natural calcium carbonate and epoxy designed to weather many heating and cooling cycles, the shells should last indefinitely unless accidentally damaged.

Clients who wish to indulge in the Lava Shell experience at home can purchase a take-home kit, which includes a small bottle of PerfectSense Botanical Massage Oil and Retail Lava Charges designed specifically for the retail consumer. The kits are available only from a professional business that carries the Lava Shell system.

Making a splash
Since its public launch, Lava Shells have become one of the Estrelia Spa’s signature treatments. “They are beautiful shells … appealing to the eye,” Illustrisimo said. Even while on display in the rack, the shells attract the attention of guests, she said.

Barros’ clients are thrilled with this new way to enhance their massage experience. Client J. Michael Wilson said, “They were surprisingly smooth and hot. I couldn’t believe how long they stayed warm. I would definitely have [Barros] use them again.”

In addition to stress relief and muscle relaxation, Bigney said the shape of the shell enabled Barros to address particularly troublesome areas. “She used the edges to get into deep tissue. Since the shell is only a couple of inches in diameter, she was able to provide more pinpoint pressure. I was so relaxed afterward.”

If the initial reaction from therapists, spa directors and clients is any indication, Lava Shells will make quite a splash in the massage industry.

Phyllis Hanlon freelances from her home in Massachusetts and often writes articles for college, family, religious and health magazines. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. She has written for MASSAGE Magazine on topics including “A Beautiful Partnership: Plastic Surgeons Enlist Massage Therapists onto Cosmetic Surgery Teams” (November 2007), “Is Working in a Group Massage Practice Right for You?” (May 2007) and “Rebuilding Shattered Lives: Massage Therapy Aids Recovery from Addictions” (February 2007).