The Ultimate Guide to Massage Oils
Time to read 22 min
Time to read 22 min
Massage oils are often overlooked in discussions of skin care, but this is a mistake. There are many common oils used for massage, but a ton of them do not get the job done in a pleasant or beneficial way.
In this blog, we lay out many of the most common ingredients used to make massage oils; breaking down what makes them good and bad for a massage experience. If you are a massage therapist looking for the best massage oil for your clients, or are planning a massage and want to find the best massage oil for your skin type and skin concerns, this blog will help you mix the perfect massage oil.
I will share with you the advice I give my dermatology patients on which oils to choose for a massage. I will categorize carrier oils separately from essential oils, as essential oils are mainly used in massage oils for fragrance.
With this reference, you'll be able to find the best massage oils to soothe skin, relieve pain, prevent stretch marks, and are safe in pregnancy. with this information, you will be able to avoid acne breakouts, sticky massages, and allergic reactions from massage oils.
Table of Contents
This inclusive list of common massage oils is organized alphabetically to provide you with information you need to avoid breakouts after a spa day. There are many common oils used for massage, but not all of them are equally good for the task.
First, we will take a look at carrier oils. Carrier oils contain a high concentration of fatty acids, and can be used as bases for additional ingredients to create different product formulations. There are many more carrier oils than those mentioned below, but these are some of the most common.
After carrier oils, we briefly look into four of the most common essential oils used in massage oils, used mainly for fragrances, then discuss the blending of oils.
Throughout the blog, we use terms like "sensitive" and “acne-prone,” to describe skin. To find out which of the 16 Baumann Skin Types you are, you can take our free skin type quiz by pressing the button below.
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Carrier oils are thicker than essential oils, rich in lipids like fatty acids or wax esters. These oils make up the bases for most massage oils. Here, we break down over a dozen of the most common carrier oils used in massage oils and compare them.
Argan oil is one of the most coveted ingredients in skin care. This ingredient contains oleic and linoleic fatty acids that provide exceptional moisturization with little chance of clogging pores. (3) This lightweight, rapidly-absorbed oil spreads super smoothly, making it the premier massage oil for hydrating skin. (5)
Argan oil is native to Morocco, and has been used by Amazigh people for diet and medical purposes for centuries. (4)
As a dermatologist, I find argan oil to be perhaps the single greatest massage oil and in skin care for most skin types because of its versatile benefits. Massage therapists often feel it has an even better spreading texture when combined with a thinner oil like almond oil.
Make sure to take the skin type quiz to find out if argan oil is right for your skin!
You can find our favorite pure organic Argan oil product is PAORR Moroccan Argan Oil.
Avocado oil’s rich fatty acid profile gives this green-hued ingredient a smooth, thick texture. The skin quickly absorbs avocado oil, prompting its myriad vitamins and carotenoids to go to work hydrating the skin while treating it with antioxidants. (6,7) Avocado oil is unlikely to clog pores, and its stellar skin-nourishment makes it a wonderful choice for massage oils.
This oil does not spread on skin quite as easily as some thinner ingredients, but its rich properties make it a great addition to massage oils.
The oleic fatty acids and vitamin E in bitter almond oil help it moisturize skin and deliver nutrients in a light, quick-absorbing fashion. (8) With decent absorption and glide, almond oil can make a quality massage oil base. You also get the benefits of antioxidants with this ingredient. The only problem with almond as a massage oil is that it is slightly comedogenic. (9) If you are prone to acne, this ingredient is not the best massage oil for you. Many masseuses put a little almond oil in one of the thicker oils to help the glide and spreadability of the massage oil.
An anti-inflammatory massage oil ingredient, borage seed contains skin-soothing gamma linoleic acid (GLA). Essential fatty acids help cells retain moisture by repairing the skin barrier, while antioxidants fight free radicals. (11) This combination may calm irritated skin while supplying nutrients to heal damaged skin.
This massage oil is fairly spreadable with a distinctive comforting slippery feel. It's great for inflammation, and for skin concerns like eczema. (10)
Coconut oil is often prized for its saturated fats that provide incredible moisturization. (13) As a massage oil, it may be too comedogenic for acne-prone skin and leave sheets stained. For normal to dry skin types, coconut satisfies with a texture that melts tension away. Some studies have found that coconut oil is good for wound healing. (12) The only issue with using pure coconut oil as a massage oil, besides its comedogenicity, is its thick, hard to spread consistently.
Don’t let the name fool you - evening primrose oil works wonderfully as a daytime massage oil too. Its concentration of GLA fatty acids has an anti-inflammatory effect to calm irritation. (14) The only drawback of evening primrose as a massage oil is that it's comedogenic. (9) I don't recommend this ingredient to acne-prone skin types.
Flax seed oil is a thick, creamy oil that makes a great base in a massage oil blend. I myself have had a massage with a blend of flax and hazelnut oils, and my masseuse told me it was her personal favorite combination. Flax seed is not perfect for extremely acne prone skin, so avoid it if you are prone to pimples on your body or face.
Grapeseed offers massage oil and clients the gold standard in texture: extremely thin and smooth. This featherweight oil keeps pores clear while delivering skin-nourishing linoleic acid.
It contains tons of free-radical-fighting resveratrol. (15) Grapeseed oil won’t stain sheets and leaves skin satiny - it's ideal for Swedish massage.
Grapeseed oil imparts tons of antioxidants and even some skin lightening effects. (16) This is one of the best choices of oil to include in massage oils.
An oil by name alone, jojoba oil is actually comprised of hyper-moisturizing wax esters. (17) These esters mimic the skin’s natural oils, allowing excellent absorption into the epidermis. (18) Jojoba’s viscosity provides more glide than typical massage oils, making massage effortless. As an added bonus, jojoba oil is highly unlikely to clog pores.
Jojoba is one of the best natural moisturizing oils on the market, and a great choice as a base for massage oil.
Marula oil comes from the nut of the African marula tree, and it is rich in vitamin C. (20) Marula massage oils rapidly absorb into the skin and deliver quick relief from dryness with a creamy, occlusive texture. (19) Its oleic acid helps restore suppleness to parched skin as it helps your masseur melt muscle tension smoothly away.
The only drawback as massage oil is that this ingredient contains comedogenic palmitic fatty acids, and should be avoided by acne prone skin types. (2)
Mineral oil has been used for decades as massage oil who want the ultimate glide and skin protection at an affordable price. Comprised of mineral hydrocarbons, it can’t oxidize or become rancid, giving it almost indefinite shelf life. (21) It won’t clog pores, but doesn’t nourish skin as profoundly as unsaturated oils.
The main issue with using mineral oils as massage oils is they're extremely thick and leave behind a ton of residue that takes a while to wash off. At the same time, mineral oils don't actually deposit moisturizing fatty acids onto the skin. Their saturated fatty acid composition means they're good at stopping moisture from evaporating, but not replacing any already lost moisture. (22) Mineral does not have any antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties as it does not contain any polyphenols.
Olive oil contains a ton of beneficial and moisturizing oleic acid, but has a texture too viscous for use in massage oil. Olive massage oil leaves skin baby soft, but may stain sheets and clog pores for some. (24) Olive can actually disturb the skin barrier. Olive oil is considered very comedogenic, but if you aren't prone to acne and wash the oil off thoroughly, you can still enjoy the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. (23) We don't recommend olive oil as a go-to massage oil.
Rosehip oil notably contains wrinkle-fighting vitamins C and lycopene from rosehips. When used in massage oil, those vitamins can help repair sun damage and impart deep moisture thanks to linoleic fatty acids. It also has antimicrobial properties. (26) Light, thin texture with subtle aroma makes rosehip ideal for facial massage for many skin types. This great, versatile oil could make a wonderful massage oil. Rosehip oil contains a very small amount of comedogenic palmitic acid, so thoroughly wash after using it. (25)
Safflower oil absorbs into the skin too quickly to be an effective massage oil. Regardless, its very high linoleic acid content and delicate texture cannot be ignored. If you mixed safflower oil with an oil high in saturated fats, the result could make a great hydrating massage oil. Safflower oil could also be a good cleansing oil to use before a main massage oil, as it has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits. (27) While not the best massage oil, safflower is excellent for many other purposes.
When sesame oil’s fatty acids and antioxidants penetrate skin, the hydration payoff is big - but so is the risk of clogged pores. (29) Sesame massage oil delivers major emollience, but expect some residue and likely breakouts as it is a comedogenic ingredient. Still, sesame generously smooths and nourishes rough spots like heels and elbows, and is good for preventing sun damage.(28) If you are not prone to acne-breakouts, sesame oil could be alright as your massage oil.
It is also worth noting that sesame oil leaves a lingering smell if not washed off thoroughly.
Sunflower oil doesn’t tend to stand out among more luxurious massage oils, but its essential fatty acid profile gives plenty of skin-soothing linoleic acid. Fairly light and deeply moisturizing, sunflower oil gets the basic massage oil job done economically with anti-aging vitamin E to boot. (1) Like safflower oil, sunflower oil absorbs into the skin too quickly to make a good hour-long massage oil.
Sweet almond oil checks all the boxes for massage oil: non-comedogenic, smoothing texture, medium absorption rate, and skin-nourishing fatty acids. No wonder massage therapists consider sweet almond the ideal pick for Swedish- and aromatherapy-based massages. Great slip plus great care makes this massage oil extremely desirable for basically any skin type. There is no risk of clogged pores from this ingredient, and your skin will love the hydrating fatty acids. (30)
Almond oil has the added benefit of helping protect the skin from sun exposure. As long as you have not mixed essential oils into almond oil, it can be worn in the sun. (42)
Essential oils are, for the sake of the list below, not true oils with fatty acids or moisturizing properties. They are mainly just used as fragrances in most products. They are often added to carrier oils for neurosensory benefits, but can be allergenic. Always discuss allergies with your client before using any type of essential oil on their skin or as a fragrance in the room. These oils are often used in the beginning of the massage as aromatherapy. They may also be airborne through an essential oil diffuser. Choose the right essential oil to match your clients ailments or mental condition because many of these fragrances have proven mood altering effects. For example, I did a research study at the University of Miami in 2011 that showed that the presence of lavender reduces anxiety during Botox injections (36).
Bergamot essential oil brings an uplifting citrus aroma to massage oils, containing a-pinene, limonene, and linalool compounds. Beware if you have a fragrance allergy because many people are allergic to limonene.
This ingredient is rich in antioxidants and slows oil production. (31) While the aroma enhances massage’s relaxing effect, bergamot may increase sun sensitivity. (32) Try to only use this essential oil to perfume night time massages, and be sure to take a good shower right afterwards. Always wash bergamot off before going in the sun!
Always wash off any essential oils before going in the sun- especially oil of bergamot and citrus oils.
Eucalyptus essential oil derives from the tree leaves’ cineole, improving focus and clearing sinuses while easing muscle soreness when in massage oil. But the potent concentrated oil can also cause skin rashes, necessitating cautious dilution and skin testing beforehand. (33) Never use pure eucalyptus oil as a massage oil. Even when diluted, it can be allergenic to some people, so take a patch test before committing to a eucalyptus product. I personally am super allergic to this fragrance and found out after getting a massage on vacation. Don't let that happen to you.
Containing abundant linalool, linalyl acetate, and over dozens more polyphenols, (34) lavender essential oil promotes stress relief and tranquility in massage oil. Though rare allergies to lavender exist, its anti-inflammatory nature makes lavender generally safe if properly diluted.
Lavender oil should not be used on its own as a massage oil, but it could be used with a carrier oil as a base. In addition to my study that showed that lavender decreased stress during a cosmetic procedures, other studies have shown that it reduces pain perception from needles (37) and helps treat depression. (38)
Rose oil gets its signature floral bouquet of aromatic compounds geraniol, citronellol, and nerol (35)– which may unfortunately irritate sensitive skin too easily in massage oils. But romantic associations with roses encourage a psychological sense of wellbeing and self-nurturing, so if you don't have sensitive skin and want to smell like roses, then rose oil could be a decent massage oil option for you.
There's no reason not to blend together different oils to make a better massage oil. As we have covered above, there are some oils that are only one or two properties shy of being great massage oils. There are also some oils that simply wouldn't work at all as massage oils without being blended with other ingredients. I personally like massage oils that contain a blend of jojoba, evening primrose oil, and almond oil for my skin. A massage oil containing a blend of coconut oil, for example, safflower oil, and lavender would maintain most, if not all, of the properties of the component oils (depending on processing). You can use our descriptions above to put together what kinds of skin and sensory effects that you prefer.
These were some of the most common massage oils I've heard of as a dermatologist, and I hope that these descriptions have given you a better understanding of how massage oils work.
If you haven't already taken our skin type quiz, you can find out what products are best for your skin here for free today!
Pregnancy massages are much needed to help relaxation and reduce aches and pains. Studies have shown that massage oils with almond oil may reduce the severity of stretch marks and decrease skin itching in pregnant women. Almond oil also been shown to be beneficial in reducing stretch marks in pregnant women.(40,41) It is likely that many different types of oils will have similar effects, but almond oil has the most evidence-based data to support its use and safety in pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Sports massages and deep tissue massages are often used to treat pain. Choosing the right oil and additives like essential oils, capsaicin, menthol and arnica can help reduce pain and inflammation.
Sesame oil has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing acute pain associated with trauma when applied topically with light pressure massage. In a controlled trial, sesame oil massage significantly reduced pain severity and need for pain medication compared to placebo in patients with limb trauma (44). This analgesic effect is likely due to anti-inflammatory properties of sesame's lignans and phytosterols. Another study found sesame oil decreased inflammation in rats (43, 45). Thus, administering light stroking massage with sesame oil is an evidence-based complementary approach to alleviate traumatic limb pain or pain from gout.
Many sports massages are performed with oils that have pain reliving essential oils or natural extracts. For example, arnica extracts added to massage oil may exert analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities. Menthol activates cold receptors to provide a cooling sensation and distract from pain perception. Capsaicin, found in chili peppers, depletes substance P to reduce sensitivity of pain nerve fibers- however it can cause severe stinging in sensitive skin types like myself. Care must be taken with these additives as they may cause skin irritation or inflammation at excess concentrations. Starting with minimal effective doses and closely monitoring client response is advised to determine safety and efficacy on an individual basis. Targeted treatment plans should be developed collaboratively considering both research evidence and client preferences, characteristics, and feedback.
Hypersensitive skin, sensitive skin, allergic skin, and those with eczema are more prone to side effects from massage oils. Top offenders include citrus oils like lemon and grapefruit, which frequently cause phototoxicity. Cinnamon, cassia, and peppermint oils contain sensitizing compounds like cinnamaldehyde and menthol. Nut oils like walnut and almond pose a danger to those with tree nut allergies and should be avoided. Complex floral oils like lavender and ylang ylang can also trigger allergic responses when applied topically. Pine and fir oils contain limonene and other terpenes associated with dermatitis.
To prevent unwanted reactions, the safest option is to select gentle, hypoallergenic carrier oils like evening primrose oil, grapeseed, jojoba, or unscented oils made for sensitive skin. Always carefully review ingredients with a hyperallergic client and perform a patch test when introducing any new plant extracts or essential oils.
To find out if you have sensitive skin, you can take our verified skin typing quiz for free! It only takes a few minutes and will augment the way you shop for skin care.
Massages have many wonderful health effects and the oil you choose can make or break the massage. We have reviewed the benefits of massage oils and additives for pregnancy, sports massages, stretch mark prevention and managing pain and gout. Research shows sesame oil effectively reduces acute pain when applied topically along with light massage. Other beneficial carrier oils like almond, coconut, argan, and evening primrose also have skin benefits, Adding extracts like arnica or compounds like menthol and capsaicin may further enhance analgesic effects, though formulations must be carefully tested to avoid skin irritation. We particularly favor mixes with argan oil, almond oil, jojoba, evening primrose oil, and arnica for their versatile therapeutic effects. Overall more robust research is still needed to optimize massage oil components and dosages for particular conditions. Practitioners should develop customized treatment plans in collaboration with their clients based on therapeutic benefits, mental state, allergic history, and preferences.
Argan oil has everything you're looking for in a massage oil; it's non-comedogenic, spreads beautifully, doesn't absorb too quickly, and leaves the skin feeling amazing. There are basically no contenders, argan oil is the best massage oil.
That depends on what you mean by worst, and what your skin is like. If you're prone to acne, coconut oil might be the worst, but if you're allergic to eucalyptus, that could be the worst too. In general, every massage oil has its pros and cons. Check out this article for a breakdown of all the most common massage oil ingredients!
Combinations or argan oil, almond oil, jojoba are safe and helpful during pregnancy and may prevent stretch marks.
Sesame oil has the most data on pain relief. It can be combined with capsaicin, menthol or arnica to help reduce pain.
Asking the client their allergic history is important to know what to avoid. Essential oils to avoid include citrus oils, cinnamon, cassia, peppermint, nut oils like almond, floral oils such as lavender, and tree oils like pine and fir. Extracts of spices like vanilla and clove should also be used cautiously. Choose gentle carrier oils like apricot kernel, evening primrose oil, grapeseed, and jojoba.