Shell Conditioners (New!)

People often wonder about using products to condition their tortoise’s shells such as a commercial product like VitaShell, hand lotion, or vegetable or baby oils.There are a lot of commonly publicized pros and cons of the idea:

Suggested Pros

  1. Dry scutes may contribute to dehydration, pyramiding, or other health issues. Using a lotion or oil moisturizes the scutes and/or seals moisture in.
  2. Point #1 may be even more important in dry climates, especially for humidity-loving species like Red-footeds.
  3. It makes the shells look better or shinier.
  4. The lotion or oil may help seal tiny cracks or fissures that let pathogens enter, or can lead to bigger problems.
  5. It helps “condition” the skin and scutes.

Suggested Cons

  1. Shells need to breathe or absorb moisture, so never apply oils or lotions.
  2. Oils and lotions can trap germs against the shell, or act as breeding media for them.
  3. The oil or lotion collects dirt, which is bad for the tortoise.
  4. The oils or lotions contain chemicals that the tortoise will absorb and be injured by.
 
Most of these points on both sides are pretty much nonsense. Shells do not “breathe” or allow moisture to pass either way, so the lotion or oil does not really help with hydration or interfere with “breathing” much. As far as other claimed benefits or problems: this stuff is basically hand lotion. It is neither hazardous nor magical.
 
What lotions or oils do accomplish is to plump up the outer layer of cells, and lock in moisture in the outer layers. This is mostly a cosmetic effect although a few keepers insist it really helps their tortoises in various ways. It is worth noting that many of these keepers live in very dry climates. 
 
If you do decide to use an oil or lotion, remember that cheap products like plain white hand lotion, plain vegetable oils, or unscented baby oil do the same thing as more costly, pet-branded products do. 
 
To use any oil or lotion for the best results:
  1. Give the tortoise a good cleaning and soaking. This will “plump-up” the skin cells.
  2. Apply a small amount of oil or lotion, and spread around in a thin layer. This thin layer will help trap the moisture from the soak in the shell for maximum benefit.
Edited 6-4-2013 (C) Mark Adkins