A Starter's Guide to Getting Aromatherapy Massage

Essential oils next to a massage towel.
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Aromatherapy massage is one of the most popular types of massage you can find in a spa today. It's at almost every spa because it's so easy to add these fragrant, therapeutic essential oils to a massage.

In a simple Swedish or deep tissue massage, the therapist is able to glide over your skin by using some kind of oil or cream that has no scent. In an aromatherapy massage, the oil also contains an essential oil (or a blend of essential oils) derived from plants.

Essential oils can penetrate the body through the skin and have multiple benefits beyond a nice smell. They affect your mood, alleviate pain, help the body detoxify, and a variety of other effects, depending on the essential oil. You can choose something that is relaxing, balancing, or invigorating, based on how you want to feel when the massage is finished.

In aromatherapy massage, essential oils are mixed with a massage oil like sweet almond, jojoba, or grapeseed oil. In the early days, massage therapists might have a few bottles of popular essential oils -- lavender, peppermint, bergamot, rose-geranium -- and add a few drops to the oil they used.

Things got more sophisticated as massage therapists started making their own custom blends, using up to five oils in a mixture, for different seasons and different effects. A relaxing aromatherapy massage might have lavender or bergamot, while a massage for sore muscles might include peppermint and eucalyptus.

Things have gotten even more sophisticated today as companies such as Aromatherapy Associates, Zents, and ESPA offer their own highly sophisticated blends. Upscale spas buy the line for both professional use and their retail store, so if you like it, you can buy a bath or body oil afterward. 

Choosing Your Oil

At the beginning of the service, the therapist lets you have a whiff of the various blends, describing what essential oils it contains and what effect they have.

 For instance, The Spa at Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid has a Zents treatment recently where there are six all in a little wooden tray, which made it convenient. To narrow it down, you have to like both the smell and wants the effects!

After you choose the one you want, the therapist leaves, you disrobe and lay (usually face down) on the table. The aromatherapy massage usually starts with three deep inhalations of the oil you chose, because that's the quickest way to get it into the body. The three deep breaths also help you become more present to the moment. Sometimes, therapists leave a tissue with some of the essential oil on it, so you continue to be aware of the scent. You can also smell it as it is being massaged into your body.

Make Sure They Are Therapeutic Essential Oils

The one thing to be careful about. Make sure the therapist is using therapeutic grade essential oils. These are higher quality than commercial-grade oils, which are used in food products, or most of the oils you can find in a natural foods store. The other thing is to make sure the essential oils are derived from plants, not the lab. Synthetic "essential oils" will not have the same therapeutic effects.

This should not be a problem with most spas, which tend to use the brands mentioned above, and independent massage therapists, who tend to be highly knowledgeable and experienced.

Aromatherapy should also not be confused with fragrances or perfume oils. Fragrances are made from chemicals and lack the therapeutic properties of essential oils. Many scented creams have synthetic fragrances in them, so just because it has an "aroma" doesn't mean it's an aromatherapy massage.

Essential oils are a volatile, highly concentrated plant extracts, derived from leaves, bark, roots, seeds resins and flowers. They can also be used in hydrotherapy baths, facials, and body treatments. You can also use them at home.