Reprinted with permission from the February, 2008 issue of Massage Today. Complete issue archives and other resources available at www.massagetoday.com
In my years of experience in the massage-supply business, I have had the tremendous opportunity to meet and speak with literally thousands of massage therapists. I often am asked questions about professional-grade products and how to know when it might be time to make a change. When I began in the industry years ago, there were only a couple of major players in the lubricant field, so the choices were not so difficult to make. But now, as our industry has grown and prospered, so have the choices in lubricants. My intent in this article is not to promote any specific brand, but rather give you some pointers so you can make the right decision for your own practice.
My first piece of advice: Always use professional-grade products designed and manufactured for professional massage therapist use. Products found in drug stores, discount chains and grocery stores are typically not designed for use on a professional level. Keep in mind you will be in contact with this product every day, with your hands immersed. You want to make sure the products you choose are designed for this type of extended exposure to skin and that it's not irritating to your skin after prolonged exposure.
Changes in skin-care technology have prompted many changes in lubricant markets. Manufacturers have become far more savvy in the ingredients they use and the overall effect the products have on the skin. In other words, it's OK to branch out and try something new because there is so much out there now. It's just a smart idea to stay in touch with new ideas in lubricants. Here are a few tips on how you can try new products without breaking the bank.
When looking for new products, it's always smart to ask your supplier if they happen to have any samples. Manufacturers sometimes will supply their distributors with sample-size products to try. In the event there are no samples, I would suggest you buy the smallest available size of the product in order to give it your evaluation. In most cases, once you break the seal on a product, it cannot be returned. This is the best reason I know to buy the smallest size on the first try. You can always buy a larger size if you like the product. Even if you have used the same lubricant for years, it never hurts to branch out a bit and see what else the market has to offer.
How should I care for my lubricants? This is a question I get asked all the time. I have to say, it's always best to avoid extreme temperatures. I have heard of therapists who have left their products in their cars for months during searing heat and bitter cold, and then wonder why it separated or smelled "funny." You should care for your lubricants by providing them storage in a temperate location not prone to climate changes. Oils like the dark, so a cabinet or closet works well. Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight.
How do I know when my lubricant has "gone bad?" Most manufacturers provide information regarding the shelf life of their products. In some cases, you may even see an expiration date printed on the bottle or jar. You will want to avoid using any product that has an undesirable odor. Oils can sometimes have a faint "cooking oil" smell when they begin to turn. Lotions and crèmes can give an unpleasant smell that somewhat resembles "plastic," for lack of a better descriptive. Of course, should you see any discoloration or growth on the inside of the container or cap, you should discard the product immediately.
One way you can help inhibit the growth of bacteria in your lubricants is to avoid cross-contamination of the product. Never use your hands to dip product from a larger container to a smaller one. Always use a clean spoon or spatula. This will prevent bacteria that live on your skin from being transferred to the product.
Whether you decide to use an oil, lotion or crème, it's always important to make sure you have asked your client about any allergies they may have. Occasionally, you will have a client who may have a pronounced allergy to an ingredient found in your lubricants - most commonly nuts. Be sure you have asked the proper questions on your intake form so you can avoid your client having an uncomfortable reaction.
This brings us to the question, "Which lubricant type will work best for me?" This will depend largely on the type of massage you want to perform. Each type of lubricant has its own special properties that aid the therapist in treatment. Oils can be used for any modality in which you will need extended glide. Oil provides the least amount of friction and is widely utilized for Swedish massage. Seed oils and nut oils are widely used; however, I would again stress the importance of making sure your client has no allergies to the ingredients in the oil you use. Lotions and crèmes are better suited for modalities that do not require a great deal of glide but instead utilize grip. You will want a product that will allow you enough glide to warm the tissue, but finish with enough grip as to allow you to work the tissue below the skin.
Finally, "How do I clean my sheets and avoid staining?" This is a concern for therapists and spas alike. Once your sheets are stained, you really cannot use them again because your clients will have the impression they are unsanitary. So, how do you care for them? There are detergents on the market made especially for the removal of oils, creams and lotions. You can surf the Web site of your favorite massage-product supplier and find a number of eco-friendly and lubricant-specific detergents designed to break down and remove the residue. Also, many manufacturers are using ingredients that make the products "water-dispersible," which certainly helps when it comes time to do laundry!
I encourage you to check out all your options and begin your journey of exploration. There are so many wonderful and exciting things appearing on the market every day; you owe it to yourself to stay in the know and be informed about the newest advancements and product breakthroughs in the industry. It's a big sea of options out there; happy fishing!