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When is a massage NOT a good thing?

Posted by Sharon Gnatt Epel on

Toxic Massage: The Dark Side of A Highly Therapeutic Modality

Sayer Ji, Founder GreenMedInfo*

What’s not to love about getting a relaxing massage? On a primal level, being gently touched sends a signal of safety to our core. It harkens back to infancy, when being swaddled and cared for by others was essential to our survival. We are literally hardwired for touch! When deprived of it, especially in infancy, serious physical and psychological issues can result. Conversely, proper application of therapeutic touch can be used as an effective adjunct therapy to create better health outcomes across a spectrum of diseases. Simply put, touch makes us feel better. And when we feel better, we often get better.

Greenmedinfo’s Research Database has eighty-five unique abstracts on the healing powers of massage and therapeutic touch. These scientific studies have proven the usefulness of touch therapy for a variety of conditions. Massage is a stand-out treatment in the area of pain management, and is an exciting, non-drug option for sufferers of numerous psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depressioninsomnia, and anorexia nervosa. With pain-pill addiction driving the nation’s ongoing drug overdose tragedy, studies on massage for treating pain are especially encouraging. It has proven effective at alleviating pain caused by numerous conditions, including lower-back and knee problems, fibromyalgia, as well as pain associated with cancer treatment, and complications of diabetes.

Massage’s holistic healing effects are due, in part, to the release of endorphins, the body’s natural “feel good” hormones and neuropeptides. Gentle touch stimulates endorphins, enhancing feelings of pleasure and security. We also benefit through connecting with another person, which is itself a form of healing energy. In addition to easing pain, massage decreases levels of stress and anxiety, conveying a greater healing benefit to patients. Massage is a “feel good” prescription, making it a natural alternative to antidepressants and sleep-aids, medications that, along with painkillers, have the highest rates of addiction1. A regular regimen of massage can even help people who are stepping down from pharmaceutical medications, or breaking the addictive hold of nicotine and alcohol.

So, when is a massage NOT a good thing?

When your session is performed using conventional massage oil or lotion that is not food-grade. Unless you know what questions to ask, your massage could include a significant dose of crude oil distillates and hormone-mimicking chemicals that are on the world watch-list of carcinogens, but are somehow still allowed into your personal care products.You may be unaware of the fact that no one is safeguarding the public when it comes to personal care products and the ingredients that go in them. The FDA is tasked with the job of ensuring public safety from unscrupulous or negligent manufacturers, but according to the FDA’s website:

This has created a market with literally no oversight. As compared to the European Union, which has banned more than 1,300 chemicals per the EU Cosmetics Directive, the FDA has only banned or restricted the use of 11 such chemicals2. This is despite known toxic ingredients commonly found in cosmetics, such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde, and what regulators call “chemicals of concern.” In May 2017, legislation was introduced into Congress that would increase the safety of U.S. consumers, however the Personal Care Products Safety Act is estimated to have only a 2% chance of being enacted. Educating yourself on what to avoid is the best way to become your own health and safety watchdog. Don’t let toxic massage oils undermine this valuable, not to mention enjoyable, self-care practice!

Petrochemical Infusion

What we put on our skin goes directly into our bodies, without benefit of the filters of the digestive tract and liver. Unlike nutrients in food which undergo a lengthy distillation process before being released into the bloodstream, products we apply to our skin are immediately absorbed into the blood, lymph, and circulatory systems.

Mineral oil, a crude oil derivative commonly used in massage oils, is one such petrochemical linked to at least two dozen adverse health effects. Much like plastic wrap, mineral oil forms a barrier over the skin, preventing moisture and oxygen exchange and contributing to cellular breakdown. Regular use of mineral oil on the skin speeds aging by slowing cellular renewal, and damaging collagen and connective tissues. While the common argument for mineral oil’s safety is that it can’t be digested by the body and is therefore inert, the reality is these petrochemicals are absorbed into tissues where they stay in organs and fat cells. A truly disturbing autopsy study from 1985 found that 48% of the livers and 46% of the spleens of the 465 autopsies analyzed showed signs of mineral-oil induced lipogranuloma (a nodule of necrotic, fatty tissue associated with foreign-body reactions and inflammation linked to a fatty substance). 

A 2011 study on 142 women who voluntarily underwent C-sections, found that mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) had accumulated to detectable levels in both body fat and breast milk samples. Age was the most significant causal factor, leading researchers to conclude that MOSH accumulates in the body over time and is biopersistent, meaning not routinely excreted or expelled. Other causal factors affecting MOSH accumulation included frequency of use of sun creams, lipsticks, and hand creams in daily life3Another troubling study from 2009 published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, found that moisturizing creams containing mineral oil significantly increased both the likelihood and size of developing tumors in high-risk (UVB-exposed) skin. The mass market brands tested included:

  • Dermabase
  • Dermovan
  • Eucerin
  • Vanicream

It might be tempting to think that a small amount of body lotion from the occasional massage couldn’t have a significant effect, but the presence of petrochemicals in our lives should not be underestimated. Our food supply is now saturated with “food-grade” petroleum, including:

  • Fruit and vegetable wax
  • Softener used in candy
  • Fertilizers used to grow crops
  • Flavor and texture additives
  • Solvents used to extract nutrients, such as soy lecithin
  • Plastic from food containers leaching into food

Unfortunately, this list goes on and on. Our nation’s full-scale dependence on oil has ensured that our bodies are under constant assault from petrochemicals. So much so, in 2008 Austrian researchers concluded that "mineral paraffins might be the largest contaminant of our body. And mineral oil isn't the only petrochemical toxin we need to self-police when it comes to body lotions. Parabens are an endocrine-disrupting, estrogen-like petrochemical used in many food, drug, and personal care products to prevent bacterial growth. While petroleum distillates such as mineral oil are known carcinogens4, the World Health Organization lists parabens as “low risk” due to low potency. What researchers are finding, is that our broad exposure across countless consumer products, environmental contaminants, and industrial farming practices more than makes up for low-doses. Parabens have been found in concentrations 1 million times higher than natural estrogen levels found in human breast tissue. The 2012 report5 by the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Centre discovered five paraben esters in human breast tissue samples collected from the underarm area of mastectomy patients. Parabens consistently clustered at the armpit site, leading researchers to conclude that paraben concentrations were from topical application of products such as deodorant and skin lotions.

You don’t need to be pregnant or immuno-compromised to be at risk. A 2017 study on paraben esters found them intact in healthy human tissues, leading researchers to conclude that parabens “penetrate human skin intact without healthy human subjects.6” There is hope for health-conscious individuals who want to rid the body of this toxic build-up: start sweating! Sweating is one of the body's primary methods of detox, and our armpits work overtime (to the dismay of many). This delicate area is uniquely sensitive, serving as a gateway for toxins on their way in, and out of the body. Another reason to safeguard what penetrates armpit skin is the presence of lymph nodes. If skin is the gate, the lymphatic system is the highway, shuttling toxins out of the body along lymphatic pathways. This makes getting a massage with chemical-filled lotions even more dangerous. Massage stimulates the lymph, and the rub-down works oils deep into the skin, directing toxins into the bloodstream and sensitive surrounding tissues.

If You Won’t Eat It, Don’t Use It

Fortunately, there is a simple fix for this serious concern that does not involve giving up massage. When booking your massage, simply ask the therapist what type of oil or lotion he or she will use in the session. If they provide a name (such as a brand name) that you don’t recognize, ask for the main ingredients. The base or carrier oil is typically the first ingredient listed. If it’s not food-grade, ask if you can supply your own oil. You can explain your concerns, or simply say that it’s for health reasons. Most experienced practitioners will not mind, and may even ask questions about providing a food-grade oil for their clients. In this era of growing awareness of chemical exposures, offering a high-quality, organic massage oil can be a point of differentiation that attracts health-savvy clients.

Which food-grade oils make the best massage elixir? First, make sure it’s organic. Next, look for cold-pressed or virgin pressings (unheated), and oil that is not refined (often done with chemical solvents). The following are all healthy options for your base or carrier oil:

  • Coconut
  • Sesame
  • Flaxseed
  • Jojoba
  • Sweet Almond
  • Avocado
  • Grapeseed
  • Olive
  • Argan

If you want to determine the best base oil to use as a personal massage oil and/or skin emollient, Greenmedinfo has lots of scientific research to inform your decision. Coconut oil is a clear stand-out in the realm of food-grade cosmetics - clear, at least, when it’s warm outside! Virgin coconut oil is an opaque solid at temperatures below 76° F (24° C), which can present problems with application if the massage oil isn’t warmed first. This can be mitigated by blending coconut oil with another carrier oil, or by simply keeping the oil at a pleasantly warm temperature, important for receiving the most comfortable massage. Regarding coconut oil’s health profile, Greenmedinfo previously shared 13 Evidence-Based Medicinal Properties of Coconut Oil which demonstrate its superiority over mineral oil for dry skin treatment and protecting the hair.7 Coconut oil has added antimicrobial and antifungal benefits that can be useful in preventing infections.

Sesame has been a prized oilseed for more than 5,000 years. The amazing health benefits of sesame support its use in our diet, and in our health and beauty regimens. A search of Greenmedinfo’s Research database shows more than 20 different abstracts on the benefits of sesame seed oil, including the following topical applications:

Used in oil pulling (swishing around in the mouth) and for gum massage, sesame oil controls gingivitis and plaque

Used as a massage oil, sesame oil works to alleviate pain 

Sesame oil is safe for infants, stimulating growth and improving sleep (and was the only oil that demonstrated these effects when compared with mustard oil, herbal oil, and mineral oil)

Applied or ingested, sesame oil demonstrates significant wound healing properties.

Sesame oil has demonstrated pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory benefits, making it an ideal massage oil for anyone suffering from inflammatory joint pain, a common motivation for seeking massage.

Flaxseed is one of the most powerful healing foods in the human diet, and flaxseed oil makes for a wonderful massage! has catalogued research on the value of flaxseed in treating over 70 diseases. It’s effect on the body is the opposite of mineral oil, having been shown to reduce mortality of breast cancer patients, and even prevent premature death in elderly subjects. The benefits of flaxseed have primarily been demonstrated when taken orally, however you can be confident that therapeutic benefit is imparted when applied topically through massage.

Aromatherapy essential oils can be added to any base oil for an enhanced therapeutic effect, such as citrus for invigoration or lavender for pain relief. PubMed has over 300 studies and abstracts on aromatherapy massage, demonstrating the benefits of therapeutic touch for specific applications such as migraines, chronic fatigue, and dementia.

For additional research on the benefits of massage, visit our database on the subject. 







5. Parabens detection in different zones of the human breast: consideration of source and implications of findings. J Appl Toxicol. 2012 May ;32(5):305-9. Epub 2012 Mar 7. PMID: 22408000

6. D Darbre, Philippa & W Harvey, Philip. (2008). Paraben esters: Review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Journal of applied toxicology : JAT. 28. 561-78. 10.1002/jat.1358.

7. S B Ruetsch, Y K Kamath, A S Rele, R B Mohile. Secondary ion mass spectrometric investigation of penetration of coconut and mineral oils into human hair fibers: relevance to hair damage. J Cosmet Sci. 2001 May-Jun;52(3):169-84. PMID: 11413497

Originally published: 2017-11-22  

Article updated: 2019-4-3

* ©2019-4-3 GreenMedInfo LLC. This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of GreenMedInfo LLC. Want to learn more from GreenMedInfo? Sign up for the newsletter here

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.
anxiety carrier oils food-grade oils GreenMedInfo massage pain management parabens personal care products safety Sayer Ji self-care stress therapeutic touch toxic massage oils toxic petrochemicals unsafe body lotions

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