Whether you’re giving yourself an at-home massage or work as a massage therapist, massage oil allows your hands to glide over skin without friction. There are plenty of oils and lotions to choose from, but not all measure up. Some can make skin feel greasy while others go rancid quickly and take on an unpleasant smell.
Knowing some of the differences between the oils can help you choose the best oil for the situation. Here are five oils that massage therapists often recommend:
Fractionated Coconut Oil
Although you may think of coconut oil as being a heavy, solid oil, fractionated coconut oil is a light, non-greasy, liquid oil and a good massage oil. Fractionated oil contains only the medium-chain triglycerides in the oil (the long chain-triglycerides are removed.) As a result, the oil is stickier and has less glide than coconut oil, making it well-suited for the shorter massage strokes that are often used to target areas of muscle tension.
Fractionated coconut oil has a long shelf life and is usually less expensive than other oils. It washes out of sheets and tends not to stain sheets like many massage oils do. Fractionated coconut oil also doesn’t have the characteristic coconut scent.
This oil shouldn’t be used on people with coconut allergies (and possibly latex allergies).
Although jojoba oil is called an oil, it is actually a wax extracted from the seed of the jojoba plant. It doesn’t feel greasy and tends not to stain sheets as easily as true oils (with the exception of microfiber sheets).
Jojoba is considered a good option for most people prone to back acne because it is thought to have antibacterial properties.
Jojoba has a long shelf life and doesn’t go rancid easily, so it’s a top choice if you don’t use massage oil regularly. It is well-absorbed, which makes it a favorite carrier oil for aromatherapy. Jojoba doesn’t have an odor and is usually not irritating to the skin.
One drawback: jojoba oil absorbs quickly, so you may need to reapply it often or combine it with other oils. Also, it is more pricey than other massage oils.
Sunflower oil is a light, non-greasy oil that won’t leave skin feeling oily. The oil, extracted from sunflower seeds, is rich in linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid), palmitic acid, and stearic acid, which are all components of healthy skin. The amount of linoleic acid in skin declines with age and can be stripped away by harsh soaps and cleansers.
Sunflower oil can go rancid quickly, so it should be purchased in small quantities and stored in a dark cool area. Squeezing one or two capsules of pure vitamin E oil into the bottle may help to extend the shelf life.
People with allergies to the sunflower plant family should avoid sunflower oil.
Sweet almond oil is one of the most popular massage oils among massage therapists. Extracted from almonds, sweet almond oil is pale yellow.
The oil is slightly oily, which allows hands to glide easily over skin. Sweet almond oil absorbs fairly quickly, but not so quickly that you need to keep reapplying it.
Compared with other oils, sweet almond oil is reasonably priced. It usually doesn’t irritate skin. People with nut allergies shouldn’t use almond oil. Note that the oil does build up on sheets and tends to stain.
Apricot Kernel Oil
Apricot kernel oil is similar in texture and color to almond oil, but costs slightly more. It is rich in vitamin E, a quality that gives it a longer shelf life (making it less likely to go rancid) than the typical oil.
Like almond oil, apricot kernel oil is absorbed into the skin, so it won’t leave people feeling greasy afterward. This property also makes it a good oil to use for aromatherapy massage.
Apricot kernel oil is a good alternative to sweet almond oil for people with nut allergies.
Other Massage Oils
Avocado Oil. Pressed from the avocado fruit, avocado oil is a heavier deep green oil and is usually mixed with lighter massage oils such as sweet almond oil. Avocado oil is roughly double the cost of sweet almond oil. People who are sensitive to latex may be sensitive to avocado oil.
Cocoa Butter. A rich oil with a distinctive aroma, cocoa butter is solid at room temperature and has a heavy texture, so it is often blended with other oils or used only for small areas.
Grapeseed Oil. n some respects, grapeseed oil makes a great massage oil. It has little-to-no odor and a smooth, silky texture without being greasy. However, grapeseed oil is said to be one of the worst oils for staining sheets.
Kukui Nut Oil. A light, thin, non-greasy oil. Native to Hawaii, kukui nut oil is typically used on all skin types, including oily skin and sun-damaged skin.
Olive Oil. Most people are familiar with olive oil as a cooking oil, but it is occasionally used for massage. It is a heavy oil with a greasy or sticky texture and distinct aroma that many associate with cooking, so it’s usually not used on its own for massage.
A study compared topical olive oil with sunflower oil and found that olive oil had no effect on epidermal barrier function, whereas topical sunflower oil resulted in significant improvement in the skin barrier.
Sesame Oil. In ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India), sesame oil is used for nourishing and detoxifying and for ailments associated with the “vata” constitutional type, such as anxiety, poor circulation, constipation, bloating, and excessive dryness. It is used in a daily ayurvedic self-massage called abhyanga.
Sesame oil is a rather thick oil that may leave skin feeling oily, so it can be blended with lighter massage oils. The unrefined oil has a strong aroma.
Shea Butter. Extracted from the seeds of a tree native to Africa, shea butter is a solid at room temperature. Like cocoa butter, shea butter is heavy and can leave an oily feeling on skin, so it is usually not used on its own for massage. It may be combined with other oils or used for very small areas. Shea contains a natural latex, so people with latex allergies should do a patch test before using it.
Wheat Germ Oil. Wheat germ oil is too thick to use on its own as a massage oil, but it can be blended with lighter oils. Wheat germ oil is rich in vitamin E.
Massage Gels, Creams, and Lotions. Instead of oil, massage therapists often use specially-formulated professional massage gels, creams, and lotions.