Toxic massage: The dark side of a highly therapeutic modality

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 breakdown…in 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:

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.


  1. Abuse of prescription drugs
  3. Evidence for cosmetics as a source of mineral oil contamination in women
  4. Carcinogens Table [PDF]
  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