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Slip & Grip – A Guide to Massage Oils, Balms & Lotions

The primary purpose of massage oils, balms and lotions is to lubricate the skin to reduce friction, allowing optimal interaction between the practitioner and receiver when performing a massage.

We can compare are how the oil spreads, how easily it’s absorbed, its nourishing and moisturising properties and scent. Other factors to consider are the cost, ease of cleaning, and the way it is processed.

The main characteristics for comparison between oils, balms and lotions are glide and viscosity:

  • Glide refers to the amount of friction or slip. Different modalities will have different needs, for example, acupressure work does not require glide, whereas at the other end of the scale, circulatory massage will require a lot. 
  • Viscosity refers to density / how liquid the product is. 

Deciding the optimal Glide / Viscosity Factor (GFV) for you will depend on:

  • Personal preference – you may just use one product, or a combination.
  • Modality or technique – how much grip or glide do you need?
  • Desired outcome – aside from the massage also consider the amount of oil left on your client’s skin and your towels and the therapeutic qualities of the product you are using.

Other things to consider when choosing the right product for your practice are:

  • Allergies – choose a low allergen product and be careful with nut based oils
  • Scent – it’s a powerful tool, but bear in mind contraindications and client preferences, unscented may give you more freedom
  • Ingredients – wherever possible choose natural ingredients without any parabens, petroleum or mineral oil or chemical preservatives
  • Shelf-Life – buying in bulk saves money but make sure you can use it before the expiry date
  • Tester – not sure about a new product? Most reputable suppliers should be able to provide you with a sample to try
  • Cost per treatment – use this formula to give you some perspective on the money factor, it may influence the product(s) you purchase:
    Measure how much product you use in a standard treatment e.g. 50ml
    Note how much you pay for your product and size e.g. $65 for 5 litres (5,000ml)
    Divide the product size by usage to calculate the number of treatments e.g. 5000/50=100
    Divide the product cost by the number of treatments to arrive at the cost per treatment e.g. 65/100=0.65c

Massage Oils are the least viscous (most liquid) option.  It has a high glide coefficient, suitable for treatments requiring a lot of glide and little friction.  However less oil equals more friction so no need to discount it completely if you still require some grip.  Being a liquid, oil can be messy and slippery when spilled, but pump bottles and holsters can help reduce that.  There are a number of proprietary massage oils on the market but there is a growing trend toward Water Dispersible oils, such as the Pure Nature range, as they wash off skin and out of towels far more easily.  Nothing spoils the mood quicker for a client than laying on a towel ingrained with rancid oil. 

Massage Balms have a higher viscosity than oil producing less slip and more grip.  Proponents of balm claim it has the glide of an oil but with the workability of a lotion.  Balms usually have a wax base so they begin quite thick but through skin heat and motion, they disperse to a working consistency.  Balms are great for hairy bodies!

Massage Lotions will all have a similar viscosity but the texture and feel will vary greatly depending on ingredients and manufacturing processes.  Lotions are ideal for clients who don’t want to feel greasy.  Due to its consistency, lotion is more easily absorbed into the skin and kneading and handwork is performed with less gliding action.

Therapeutic additives in the form of essential oils can be added to any of these products for specialised treatments.  Some of the more common ones will help achieve biologic effects such as relaxation, heating or cooling. 

It may be that your client base or treatment menu demands you have a range of options available.  Massaging a hairy rugby player would be best suited to a warming balm, but then if you do hand and foot massages at the local nursing home, a quickly absorbed lotion would be a much safer option.  Common sense, the needs of your clients and the suitability to your practice will be the overriding decisive factors when choosing which products best complement your business.  

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