For Best Results, Match Your Massage Topicals to Your Techniques


Beyond the consistency and glide your technique requires — which will largely determine your use of lotion, oil, cream, butter or gel — the ingredients in your chosen topicals can allow you to further address your clients’ issues.

Your massage techniques — both choosing the correct ones and applying them with skill, care and positive intention — form the foundation of an effective session for your clients. And unless you are practicing a technique that requires no lubrication of the skin, such as seated massage or shiatsu, the topicals you include in each session represent an opportunity to enhance your bodywork.

As examples, athletes might benefit most from a deep-tissue massage with analgesic gel, while expectant moms might do better with a rich, skin-nourishing oil for prenatal work.

The ideal pairing of technique with topical can make the difference between delivering a standard, one-size-fits-all massage and giving clients a customized experience tailored to their wants and needs.

Glide, Friction & Absorbency

The amount of glide a topical product provides is one of the biggest considerations for massage therapists. Oils and lotions usually offer the most glide, which is necessary for medium to light pressure modalities — Swedish massage for stress relief, for example.

“The use of a good quality massage lotion is recommended for Swedish,” said Jean Shea, founder of BIOTONE, which manufactures massage and spa products.

If you need to do deep work or focus on one area at a time, you might want to reach for a topical product that offers more friction and less glide.

“With myofascial release, we need an ointment that reduces glide,” said James Waslaski, LMT, founder of the Center for Pain Management. He told MASSAGE Magazine he worked for several years to develop a topical ointment that best complemented his myofascial work.

Another consideration for massage therapists is a topical’s absorbency, which depends on your modalities and to some extent, your clientele. If you’re providing massage in a spa setting where clients may shower afterward, a slowly-absorbing topical may not be a problem. With other client populations you’ll want a light lubricant that absorbs completely by the end of the session.

Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT, owner of Day-Break Geriatric Massage, uses a product with a consistency between a lotion and a cream. “We don’t use oil on seniors because it leaves a residue on their skin,” she explained, noting that in retirement or assisted living communities, seniors may only get bathed three times a week, so it’s crucial the lubricant used during their massage be highly absorbable.

Franklin Warren, new product development scientist at Performance Health, recommends a faster-absorbing lubricant for deep work and a more slow-to-absorb product for lighter-touch work. If you want a medium-absorbency product for general purposes, those formulated with jojoba, marula or fractionated coconut oil may be good choices, said Warren.

Beneficial Topicals

Many of today’s massage topicals are formulated with ingredients that can work in harmony with your hands to help nourish skin, more effectively relieve pain and tension, and further support your clients’ well-being.

Arnica can help clients with musculoskeletal pain. “Arnica’s been a mainstay in the industry for a while,” noted Warren. Arnica extract comes from a plant in the sunflower family and has a long history of use for medicinal purposes, plus a growing body of research into its efficacy.

For example, one 2013 study in the European Journal of Sport Science involved applying topical arnica every four hours to male athletes with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The arnica group participants reported less pain over the course of the study.

Magnesium in topical products can help with muscle cramps, spasms and nerve pain, said Waslaski, who often uses a magnesium calming cream with clients who have these issues.

Not much research into topical magnesium exists, though a 2015 pilot study in the Journal of Integrative Medicine showed application of magnesium solution to the skin helped patients with fibromyalgia.

CBD — short for cannabidiol — products have flooded the market recently thanks to the legalization of industrial hemp, from which CBD is derived. This includes topicals suited for spot application as well as CBD-infused massage oils and other lubricants.

CBD topical products are created from industrial-grade hemp rather than flowering marijuana plants, so they contain only trace amounts of THC. Therefore, they will not produce the high typically associated with cannabis usage. You may have to explain this to clients, since the information presented online about these products is often confusing and overwhelming.

The exact mechanism of how CBD works to counteract pain is not fully understood. A very simplified explanation is that cannabinoids work with the body’s own endocannabinoid system to modulate pain signals. Research in the field of cannabis is relatively young and much of it, including CBD-related research, focuses on ingestion rather than topical applications. Anecdotal evidence from people who have experienced the pain-relieving properties of topical CBD products is abundant.

With so many products on the market, how do you choose? “It starts with the source. It’s always good to look at the reputation of the company,” said Joe Freeman, CEO of MedZone, which is developing a CBD product. He also recommends reading each product’s certificate of analysis, and understanding what other ingredients are in the product.

Specialties that may benefit from CBD topicals include those that address a general clientele presenting with muscle aches, pains and stiffness. Alec Burkin, director of business development for CBD Clinic, which manufactures CBD-containing topicals, notes that some massage therapists also use CBD products in conjunction with cupping.

Warm & Cold Therapy

In addition to pain-relieving topicals, those that create heat and cold can extend the benefits of massage beyond the session, especially if you instruct clients how to use these products at home between visits. Waslaski said he often gives clients topical sample packets with his business card attached.

Capsaicin is a pain reliever frequently found in massage topicals. This compound, which gives peppers their hot flavor, can also be used to address musculoskeletal pain.

According to Steve Capobianco, medical director for RockTape, which specializes in kinesiology tape, fitness accessories and other products, including RockSauce, a topical pain relief cream containing capsaicin, current literature indicates capsaicin can decrease pain associated with such neuropathic conditions as shingles, diabetes and psoriasis, as well as osteoarthritis pain.

A study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2010 examined the efficacy of a capsaicin cream versus a placebo in subjects with chronic back pain, finding that “all outcome measures had significantly more improved in the capsaicin-treated compared with the placebo-treated chronic back pain sufferers.”

Menthol, derived from the leaves and young stems of the peppermint plant, is also a popular ingredient in topical pain-relief products. You are likely familiar with the intense cooling sensation menthol generates when it comes into contact with skin.

“Menthol is an approved over-the-counter drug ingredient for temporary relief from minor aches and pains of sore muscles and joints associated with arthritis, backache, strains and sprains,” said Warren.

A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy indicated that topical menthol gel significantly outperformed ice for pain relief. Many other studies support menthol’s benefits; research has supported its use in addressing muscle strain (Clinical Therapeutics, 2010); cancer-treatment pain (Supportive Care in Cancer, 2015); carpal tunnel syndrome pain (Rehabilitation Research and Practice, 2014); and tension headaches (Nervenarzt, 1996).

What About Essential Oils?

Aromatherapy is a popular massage session add-on, and additional benefits of essential oils can be achieved by using a lubricant containing essential oils chosen with clients’ needs in mind. Many of the essential oils included in today’s professional massage lubricants are designed to enhance relaxation and stress reduction, said Shea. She noted that tangerine, rosewood, chamomile and lavender are popular with therapists.

While more research is needed in the field of aromatherapy, some studies do bear out the positive effects of essential oils on human health. A May 2017 study in Phytotherapy Research, for example, found the aroma of bergamot oil improved positive feelings in subjects in a waiting room at a mental health treatment center. Another 2015 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine showed lavender essential oil on skin reduced pain intensity in hemodialysis patients during the insertion of dialysis needles.

Specialties that may benefit from essential oils include those that address various types of specific clientele, including infants, pregnant clients, people experiencing stress or post-traumatic stress disorder, and the general public. You should always do a thorough intake in which you ask clients about their allergies, and keep a very basic, fragrance-free, all-natural topical on hand.

One Tool Among Many

The information presented here represents just a handful of the many options available in today’s specialized massage topicals. This general overview of topicals does not replace education in the appropriate use of any massage or spa product. Just like your highly trained hands, topicals are a tool that should support your expertise, complement your technique and help your clients.

About the Author:

Allison M. Payne is a freelance reporter and the former associate editor of MASSAGE Magazine.



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