Most people have heard at one point or another that certain smells can produce specific, desired responses. For example, walk down the bath aisle of any store and you will see the calming effects of lavender or the energizing effects of citrus on almost every label. Using the scents to achieve these effects (calming, energizing) is the purpose of aromatherapy.
Put simply, aromatherapy is a technique where essential oils are used to promote and improve mental and physical well-being. “As essential oils are inherently ‘aromas,’ a lot of their benefits come from simply inhaling them,” says Lorrie Hargis, a registered aromatherapist. “Their vaporized molecules travel through our nasal cavities to the olfactory bulb and trigger the hypothalamus. Smells also reach the limbic part of the brain, where our instincts, memories, and emotions of pleasure and pain are stored.”
If you dig a little deeper than your local bath and body aisle, you’ll find that the science of essential oils and aromatherapy, as well as their possible benefits when combined with massage therapy, is starting to show real promise.
The Benefits of Incorporating Aromatherapy Into Your Massage Sessions
More recently, several studies have started to substantiate some of the very real benefits of aromatherapy, including reducing fatigue and increasing energy1, reducing nausea2, relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression3, improving sleep quality4,5, and decreasing stress6,7.
Jade Shutes, founder and director of education for The School for Aromatic Studies, explains how some of these benefits can further enhance a massage therapy session, especially today, when stress levels can be high and people are looking for more holistic ways to take care of themselves.
“Essential oils can be a powerful addition to massage therapy for stress, tension, anxiety, and pain,” Shutes says. “At this time in the world when so many people are suffering from anxiety, depression and stress, the integration of aromatics into your massage therapy practice can offer profound support for the client.”
Hargis also notes deeper relaxation can be achieved during a massage session. “Aromatherapy can allow the client to access deeper states of relaxation and feel more comfortable and at ease with their massage therapist,” she says.
Shutes encourages massage therapists to spend time educating clients on some of these more common benefits of aromatherapy. “Educating my clients on aromatherapy was an essential part of my practice,” she explains. “I provided a brochure to explain the benefits of aromatherapy massage, and if they were subscribed to my newsletter, they received information about different essential oils and how to use them at home.”
The experts we spoke to also noted that, just like other massage techniques, aromatherapy can and should be customized to meet the needs of the client, as well as what they’re looking to manage. Of course, always pay attention to anything that would contraindicate aromatherapy, like sensitivities to scents, skin sensitivities and allergies. “Headaches can be caused by different things,” Hargis explains. “A massage therapist working with a client whose headache is caused by stress and tension might use lavender during the session. For people with ocular headaches, I recommend applying compresses of Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum).”
Rosemary and peppermint are also good choices for headaches, Hargis adds, though she has more recently been using Ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora), as this essential oil has less of an environmental impact because only small branches from the trees are needed instead of growing and harvesting large fields of plants.
In some cases, like with lavender, an essential oil can pull double duty. “Lavender and rose essential oil have been researched for improving sleep quality,” says Hana Tisserand, COO and cofounder of TisserandInstitute.org, who also notes lavender has shown good results in helping relieve anxiety and stress.
Although more research is needed, Shutes explains some of what is known about essential oil mechanisms of action. “Essential oils can influence the HPA axis, the sympathetic nervous system, and neurotransmitter systems, including serotonergic, DAnergic, and GABAergic pathways,” she says. “Due to their ability to influence these systems, essential oils have been shown in animal and human studies to exhibit anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving), stress-relieving, and sedative activity.”
How To: The Basics of Incorporating Essential Oils Into A Massage Session
“Aromatherapy works via two main pathways, our sense of smell and dermal application,” Shutes explains.
Shutes offers four ways to integrate aromatherapy into massage sessions:
- Apply 1 to 2 drops of an essential oil or synergy (blend) to the face cradle cover and instruct the client to take a few deep breaths before starting the massage session.
- Create a customized aromatherapy massage oil to apply during the session.
- Scent and warm some towels by filling your sink with warm water, adding in 4 to 5 drops of essential oil and soak. Remove the towels from the water, wring out excess water, then place in warming cabinet.
- Spritz aromatic misting spray over the client’s body at the end of the massage session.
“Diffusing your massage space before a client arrives so the room is full of scent is a great way to start a massage session,” explains Blythe Lynn Reed, a licensed massage therapist and holistic health practitioner, who also adds essential oils to her massage creme. “I start with the feet, using essential oils in my massage creme. At the end of the session, I put a small amount of essential oil on the client’s chest so they feel refreshed.”
Massage therapists can also consider individualized means of inhalation, Tisserand explains. “Apply essential oil to a cotton pad and let the client inhale,” she says. “Essential oils can easily be added to any neutral massage oil as well.”
When incorporating essential oils in creme or oil, however, dilution is necessary. “For a full body massage, that would be somewhere between 1 to 5 percent of essential oil in carrier,” Tisserand says.
Like almost every aspect of massage therapy, and especially with aromatherapy, the key is understanding the individual client. “There may be contraindications or dilution recommendations for individual essential oils based on the client’s age, health conditions, or skin sensitivity,” Shutes adds.
Contraindications and Risks: When To Be Cautious
The risks and contraindications for essential oils vary greatly because the oils themselves are so varied. Different parts of different plants are used, so while one essential oil may be perfectly fine for a person to use, a different essential oil may carry risks.
Before using any essential oil or aromatherapy with a client, make sure you’ve done a thorough intake and understand any health conditions, sensitivities or allergies that may affect either choice of essential oil or if aromatherapy is appropriate at all.
“A massage therapist should always be informed about each essential oil they intend to use to avoid any potential adverse reaction,” Shutes explains.
“Some situations where caution needs to be exercised include people on multiple medications, people that suffer from seizure disorders, and people with severe allergies or multiple chemical sensitivities,” Tisserand explains. “Some essential oils, such as wintergreen, have specific cautions attached to them for people on blood thinners.”
Be mindful of your own boundaries, too. Hargis, for example, will not use aromatherapy with clients who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and is careful about using eucalyptus globulus with anyone who has asthma.
Assessing the Quality of Essential Oils
To maximize any benefits aromatherapy may provide to a client, it is important to start with a high-quality essential oil. “Utilizing high-quality, genuine and authentic essential oils is imperative to the practice of aromatherapy,” Shutes advises.
“There are numerous factors that contribute to the quality of the essential oils on the market, including growing methodology, timing of harvest, and form of plant material used (fresh or dried),” says Adora Winquist, author and modern alchemist. “Other factors relate to the length and type of the distillation process.”
When attempting to assess the quality of an essential oil, massage therapists need to do their research. “Look for reputable suppliers with solid reviews and independent, third-party testing on their oils,” says Tisserand.
Shutes suggests that each of the following should be plainly available upon purchase of any essential oil:
- Common name of plant
- Latin name (exact genus and species)
- Country of origin
- Part of the plant processed
- Type of extraction (distillation, expression), or CO2 extraction (producing a CO2 extract, not an essential oil)
- How plant was grown (organic, wild-crafted, traditional)
- Chemotype (if/when relevant)
“Try to find out the typical color and aroma associated with the essential oil so you can test it to make sure it is not rancid, oxidized, or been tampered with,” adds Hargis. Additionally, Reed encourages massage therapists to research their choices, and change companies if needed.
Massage Therapy Journal
Massage Therapy Journal
Research: Massage and Menopause
1. Hawkins J, Hires C, Kennan L, Dunne E. “Aromatherapy blend of thyme, orange, clove bud, and frankincense boosts energy levels in post-COVID-19 female patients: A randomized, double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial.” Complement There Med. 2022. Aug;67:102823.
2. Norton A, Gustafson D, White-Traut R, Gralton K. “Exploration of aromatherapy in a pediatric outpatient surgical setting: a pilot study.” J. Perianesth Nurs. 2022. Oct;37(5):678–682.
3. Liu T, Cheng H, Tian,L, Zhang Y, Wang S, Lin L. “Aromatherapy with inhalation can effectively improve the anxiety and depression of cancer patients: A meta-analysis.” Get Hosp Psychiatry. 2022. Jul-Aug;77:118–127.
4. AlMohammed H, Alanazi N, Maghrabi E, Alotaibi M. “Role of aromatherapy as a natural complementary and alternative therapy in cardiovascular disease: a comprehensive systematic review.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2022. May 20.
5. Chen ML, Chen YE, Lee HF. “The effect of bergamot essential oil aromatherapy on improving depressive mood and sleep quality in postpartum women: a randomized controlled trial.” J Nurs Res. 2022. Apr 1;30(2).
6. Shim MS, Je NJ, Lee DY. “Aromatherapy massage for relief of pruritus and stress in older women.” Altern Ther Health Med. 2023. Mar;29(2):36-41.
7. Ebrahimi H, Mardani A, Basirinezhad M, Hamidzadeh A, Eskandari F. “The effects of Lavender and Chamomile essential oil inhalation aromatherapy on depression, anxiety and stress in older community-dwelling people: A randomized controlled trial.” Explore (NY). 2022. May-June;18(3):272–278