There are many different types of massage oils available. At the health food store, you'll find single massage oils such as sweet almond oil or avocado oil. If you shop at spa shops or skin care stores, you're more likely to find blended massage oils containing two or more massage oils.
Why is it important to know about the different massage oils? Some oils are more likely to leave you feeling greasy after the massage, while other massage oils go rancid quickly and take on an unpleasant smell. Worse, some oils might irritate skin or cause allergic reactions.
Here are my five top choices. These massage oils can be used alone or in combination.
1) Sweet Almond Oil
Sweet almond oil is one of the most popular massage oils among massage therapists. Extracted from almonds, sweet almond oil is pale yellow in color.
It is slightly oily, which allows hands to glide easily over skin. Sweet almond oil is absorbed 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 does not irritate skin. People with nut allergies should not use almond oil.
2) 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 than the typical oil.
Like almond oil, apricot kernel oil is absorbed into the skin, so it won't leave people feeling greasy afterwards. 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.
3) Jojoba Oil
Jojoba oil is actually a wax extracted from the seed of the jojoba plant. Jojoba oil is a good option for most people prone to back acne because it is thought to have antibacterial properties and contains long chain wax esters that closely resembles skin sebum.
Jojoba has a very long shelf life, so it's a good choice if you don't use it regularly.
It is very well-absorbed, which makes it a favorite carrier oil for aromatherapy. Jojoba is usually not irritating to skin.
One drawback: jojoba oil is so silky and quickly absorbed, you may need to reapply it often or mix it with other oils listed here. It is more pricey than sweet almond oil.
Read more about jojoba oil.
4) Fractionated Coconut Oil
Although you may think of coconut oil as being a thick, white solid oil, fractionated coconut oil is actually a light, non-greasy, liquid oil.
It is called fractionated coconut oil because it contains only a fraction of the whole oil. The long-chain triglycerides have been removed, leaving only the medium-chain triglycerides.
Fractionated coconut oil is less pricey than many other oils (it's comparable to sweet almond oil) and like jojoba oil, has a very long shelf life. But perhaps the top feature of fractionated coconut oil is that it tends not to stain sheets, a problem with most massage oils.
5) Sunflower Oil
Sunflower oil is a light, non-greasy oil that won't leave skin feeling oily. The oil, extracted from sunflower seeds, is rich in the essential fatty acid linoleic acid, as well as palmitic acid and stearic acid, all components of healthy skin. The amount of linoleic acid in skin declines with age and can be stripped 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.
Other Massage Oils
Avocado oil is pressed from the avocado fruit. Deep green in color, avocado oil is a heavier 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 is very rich and has a distinct chocolate aroma. It is solid at room temperature and has a heavy texture, so it needs to be blended with other oils or used only for very small areas.
In many respects, grapeseed oil makes a great massage oil. It has little-to-no odor, and it has a smooth, silky texture without being greasy.
However, most grapeseed oil is extracted from grape seeds using a solvent (rather than being pressed from the seeds), which some aromatherapists say make it an inferior oil for aromatherapy massage.
Kukui Nut Oil
A light, thin, non-greasy oil. Native to a Hawaii, kukui nut oil is typically used on all skin types, including oily skin and sun-damaged skin.
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 recognizable aroma that many associate with cooking, so it's usually not used on its own for massage.
One 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 is prized in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India. It is used in a daily Ayurvedic self-massage called abhyanga, as well as shirodhara.
According to Ayurveda, sesame oil is especially useful for nourishing and detoxifying and for ailments associated with the vata type, such as anxiety, poor circulation, constipation, bloating, and excessive dryness.
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.
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 blended 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.
Darmstadt GL, Mao-Qiang M, Chi E, Saha SK, Ziboh VA, Black RE, Santosham M, Elias PM. Impact of topical oils on the skin barrier: possible implications for neonatal health in developing countries. Acta Paediatr. (2002) 91;5: 546-54.