Whether you’re a huge fan or just a curious bystander, there’s no doubt that aromatherapy and essential oils are becoming increasingly popular. Aromatherapy was a $4 billion market in 2016, and is projected to come close to doubling by 2024. What does all this mean? People seem to like their aromatherapy an awful lot. Massage therapists have long known that engaging multiple senses in their sessions can help clients to relax, which is why you’ll often see massage rooms include things like low lighting and soft music. Scent, when used appropriately, can be a natural addition to this multisensory experience.
Unfortunately, essential oils are not without their hazards. Incidents like the daycare that had to be evacuated due to the use of an essential oil diffuser and the young woman who ended up with serious chemical burns on her face, are potent reminders that essential oils are, well, potent. So if you’re considering adding aromatherapy to your massage session, it’s important to ask your massage therapist a few questions first.
Do you offer aromatherapy or allow it in your practice?
If it is already listed on their website as an option, you can skip this question. But if you have a favorite oil of your own that you’d like to have incorporated into your session, it’s important to ask ahead of time. Since most massages are given in a relatively small space, strong scents can linger for hours or even days after your massage is over. For this reason, many massage therapists prefer to keep their spaces scent-free. If you want essential oils to be a part of your massage, the first step is finding out whether they are welcome.
What kind of training do you have in aromatherapy?
Unlike massage therapy, there are no legal requirements to be met before you can call yourself an aromatherapists. This can make it tricky to determine whether or not a person has the training needed to use essential oils safely. For massage therapists who provide aromatherapy massage, it’s important that they are educated about both the benefits and the potential pitfalls of essential oils. This includes things like:
Appropriate dilution and application practices
Contraindications (health conditions that would make certain oils unsafe)
Signs of reaction
This doesn’t mean that your massage therapist needs to know about every oil ever made before practicing! In fact, a better way for new aromatherapists to start is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the safe use of just a handful of oils, and then limit their practice to those few until their experience and training allow them to safely expand their range.
Where did you get your training?
Just as important as the “what” of training is the “where”. Who trained them? Was it a reputable school or third party organization with a certification process that includes an exam, or was their “certification” something that came with a one-hour webinar? Keep in mind that any training received from the same business or organization that is selling essential oils is suspect. The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy has its educational standards posted on its website, which is an example of what a strong aromatherapy educational program should look like.
And to head off any feelings of social awkwardness: it’s not insulting to ask questions like this! Well-trained aromatherapists are proud of their qualifications and are happy to share them with you.
What specific ingredients will you be using on me?
Answers like “my special relaxation blend” are obviously not specific enough, but so are other answers that might seem fine on the surface. “Mint,” for example, doesn’t cut it. Someone might be fine with peppermint, but have a dermal reaction to wintergreen. Make note of carrier oils, as well. If you’re someone with sensitive skin or a history of allergic reactions, this is worth asking a massage therapist who uses any kind of cream, oil, or lotion on you, even unscented.
Why is all this important? If you have a reaction of some kind, you need to know exactly what it was that caused it. Telling your dermatologist “Oh, it smelled spicy, maybe a bit like ginger?” is not helpful to you or them. Even if you don’t have any known allergies, it’s worth knowing which oils are commonly known to be irritants, and asking specifically for those that are less likely to produce a reaction, at least to start.
What are the contraindications for this oil? Are you aware that I have [issue]?
Your massage therapist should have done a thorough intake and be aware of any health conditions, but it’s worth asking these questions specifically in the context of using essential oils. Do you have skin issues like acne, eczema, or razor burn? Respiratory problems like asthma or COPD? Do you go tanning regularly, or do you plan on spending a lot of time in the sun? These are things your massage therapist needs to be aware of before using any essential oils on you.
What the heck are you doing!?
This is the one we hope nobody ever has to ask, but it’s an important question anyhow. Any oil can become problematic if used inappropriately. If you feel that your aromatherapy massage is not proceeding according to what you previously discussed, you are well within your rights to shut that down immediately. If something feels like it is itching or burning, stop. If you feel like the smell is affecting your nose, throat, or lungs, stop. Any massage therapist that is asking you to ingest, breathe, or use an essential oil internally is acting outside of their scope of practice. That’s not to say that there are no circumstances in which using oils in these ways would be appropriate (which is a whole separate discussion), simply that it’s not appropriate as part of a massage.
Essential oils can be enjoyable.
They should also be safe. Asking a few questions can help ensure that your experience with aromatherapy massage is both.