Aromatherapy has always occupied a paramount place in every major culture, whether for cosmetic, religious, therapeutic or even spiritual purposes.
The first aromatherapy-related remains date back to the Neolithic Period, approximately 8,000 years ago, when humans incorporated fragrant herbs into their recipes and natural remedies as a means of enhancing their flavor and potentiating their properties, respectively.1 The Indians harnessed the goodness of Ayurvedic spices; the Chinese, of the citrus fruits; the Egyptians, of myrrh and frankincense; the Greeks, of cedar and cypress; and the Romans of rosemary, sage and thyme1.
In spite of this millenary background, it was not until 1937 that the term aromatherapy came to life1. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, the renowned French botanist and chemist, was the first person to ever use this word in his book entitled “Aromatherapie.” The purpose of such publication was toset apart therestorative from the fragrant benefits of the essential oils1.
According to the International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA), aromatherapy is “the ancient art and science of blending naturally extracted essential oils from aromatic plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit”2. Essential oils are considered the essence or the soul of scented species and are secreted by highly specialized structures found in barks, leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, resins, seeds and stems3. They only make up 0.1 to 1% of the total dry weight of the plant, which explains why they can be so expensive.
Depending on their nature, they can be obtained via steam distillation, CO2/cold-pressed/solvent extraction, and maceration3. The organoleptic properties of plants (aroma, taste, color, etc.) can be attributed to the alcohol, aldehyde, esters, ketones, oxides, phenols, and terpene content of the essences3.
The aim of this article is to provide scientific data that supports the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy massage and encourage massage therapists to incorporate it into their practice.
Benefits of Aromatherapy Massage
The addition of essential oils to any massage, regardless of the technique, immediately transforms it into an aromatherapy massage. In a professional massage setting, essential oils have two main paths of action:
– Olfactory4,5: when inhaled, their volatile particles travel through the nasal cavity and up to the receptor cells located at the olfactory epithelium. Our noses have literally millions of these cells as they help us recognize aromas from our environment. Once the receptors are stimulated, a series of signals are generated at that site and then carried via the olfactory bulb to their final destination: the limbic system.
This system will, in turn, decode the signal and release noradrenalin, endorphins serotonin, among many other neuro messengers that elicit a positive mind-body response. Their course of action pretty much resembles that of a hormone. Let’s not forget that the limbic structures regulate crucial survival functions like blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, hormonal homeostasis, memory, and emotional poise.
This explains why each essential oil triggers very strong biological and psychological actions. The association of a particular scent with a memory is one of them.
– Cutaneous6: the oil-soluble molecules of the essences are compatible with the bi-lipid layer of the cell membranes. This characteristic allows them to readily penetrate the layers of the skin, the muscles and even reach the bloodstream.
From there, they will be taken to out-of-balance tissues and organs. Absorption of essential oils is greater in areas with a high concentration of sebaceous and sweat glands. The increased temperature provided by a massage can also enhance the permeability of the skin towards essential oils.
Making claims about the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy is certainly a gray area as most clinical studies are non-conclusive. Furthermore, the bulk of the scientific community does not seem to be particularly interested in this area of research and prefer to focus on other topics.
This leads us to the next question, what properties can be truly attributed to essential oils? Based on the currently available data we can safely affirm that an aromatherapy massage,4,6:
• Boosts tissue tone
• Supports pain management
• Helps reduce inflammation
• Has potent antimicrobial activity
• Balances the endocrine system
• Promote a positive attitude
• Energizes the body and diminishes fatigue
• Combats insomnia and improves quality of sleep
• Relieves burnout (mental and physical exhaustion)
• Intensely moisturizes, nourishes, and softens the skin
• Provides potent antioxidants that promote a youthful look
• Decreases agitation, anxiety, depression, stress ,and other challenging behaviors
Best Essential Oils for Massage Purposes
• Black pepper: increases blood flow, has a warming (rubefacient) action on tissues, aids proper digestion, as well as produces a deep antispasmodic and analgesic effect.4,7
• Eucalyptus: decongests nasal congestion, stimulates the immune system, mitigates aches/pains, and helps improve inflammatory skin conditions.4,7
• Geranium: stimulates lymphatic drainage, soothes inflammatory skin conditions, relieves menstrual symptoms, and reduces anxiety.4,7
• Lavender: calms the nervous system, targets painful muscles, promotes healthy wound healing, and encourages new cell growth.4,7
• Lemon: brightens the complexion, helps reduce blemishes, boosts the immune system, elevates the mood and has deeply cleansing/detoxifying properties.4,7
• Peppermint: its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, decongestive, and digestive.4,7
• Roman chamomile: is one of Nature’s best anti-inflammatory agents, induces mind-body relaxation, decreases spasms, and relieves anxiety and stress.4,7
• Rose: this fragrant flower calms the nervous system, diminishes inflammation, acts as a skin astringent/tonic, and supports healthy wound healing.4,7
• Frankincense: its scent is profoundly sedative and soothing of the nervous system. It helps ameliorate anxiety and depression.4,7
• Ylang-ylang: this exotic essence balances sebum secretion, soothes tired muscles, increases self-esteem, and relieves anxiety/depression.4,7
Recommended Dilution Ratios of Essential Oils
Diffuser: Add three to five drops of your favorite single essential oils into a 100 ml diffuser.
Topical use: Since the skin will be highly stimulated with the massage techniques, it is better to play it safe and use a 1% dilution: blend 1 drop of essential oil into 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of carrier oil. Almond, apricot kernel, coconut (fractionated is best suited for the face), jojoba and sunflower oils provide a great slip without leaving a greasy-afterfeel.
How to Identify Good Quality Essential Oils
Identifying good quality essential oils is arguably one of the most challenging parts of aromatherapy as using a poor-quality product can severely compromise the benefits obtained, even if the dilution and massage techniques are correct.
With so much contradictory and confusing information available it is really hard for massage practitioners to make an informed purchase.
In order to simplify this process, we have put together some guidelines for you:
• Under ingredients, it should read: 100% pure essential oil(s)
• Verify that the label contains the country of origin and Latin name
• Essential oils should come in dark containers, whether they are amber or blue
• Develop a sharp sense of smell by testing oils from different brands
• Refrain from buying oils that give off a rather strange aroma
• There is no such thing as a “therapeutic grade” certification for essential oils. This is just another marketing tool employed by companies to drive sales.
• Whenever possible, invest in certified organic or wild-harvested essential oils
• Double-check the manufacturing practices of your supplier
• Request the gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectrometry (MS) for a detailed breakdown of the components of the oil. These analytical techniques will indicate if additives and other unwanted substances are present in the essence.
• Compare prices: essential oils can be very costly as most of them require a huge amount of raw material in order to produce just 1 ml. Products sold at a price that is way below the average are certainly not pure.
Aromatherapy Massage Overview
Aromatherapy is a technique that has helped humans adapt to their environment and maintain a good level of health. After playing a center role in ancient civilizations, it sank into oblivion until the early 20th Century.
During the past 10 years, aromatherapy´s popularity has skyrocketed thanks to the massive campaigns run by MLM companies. While it is important to make essential oils available to everyone, incorporating them into your daily life and professional practice is not as simple as reading a booklet. Since the nature of these plant essences is extremely concentrated, they could cause irritation and other side effects if not used correctly.
Essential oils are classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as cosmetics, thus should not be employed for treating any ailments6. Doing so will only tarnish the beautiful benefits that can be derived from this fragrant method.
Aromatherapy can gain respect from the medical community only when it stays within its limits. You, as a massage therapist, can help attain this goal by following the aforementioned guidelines. It is a win-win situation: The aromatherapy massage will take your services to a whole new level and your clients will experience a heightened and unparalleled sense of wellbeing.
About the Author
Ishtar Mubarak wrote this article on behalf of Sekan Beauty, a family-owned, San Francisco-based company consciously reimagining skin care and beauty. A certified medical esthetician and aromatherapist with 20 years of experience in the beauty industry, she was awarded a baccalaureate degree in cosmetology as well as a bachelor’s degree in cosmetology and clinical psychology. Mubarak holds several certifications in advanced medical esthetics and holistic nutrition. She specializes in sensitive skin and clean beauty.
1. “History of Aromatherapy,” International Federation of Aromatherapists
4. Ali B, Al-Wabel N, Shams S, Ahmad A. “Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy, A Systemic Review,” ResearchGate.
5. Rajmohan V, Mohandas E. “The Limbic System,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry.
6. Battaglia S., (2003). “The complete guide to aromatherapy.” Brisbane, Queensland, Australia: The International Center of Aromatherapy. 7. Farrar AJ, Farrar FC, “Clinical Aromatherapy,” Nurs Clin North Am. 2020; 55(4) 489-504.