It makes “scents” – exploring essential oils
By Jules Torti
What are the massage therapists doing with all the peppermint oil?” was the monthly bewildered question of Julie Simcox, Spa Director at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa. The stuff was like red velvet cupcakes: it disappeared when backs were turned (and not just the backs of clients on the massage tables). Simcox would order in several more bottles and ask us once again to show some restraint. I had colleagues who were very liberal with their blending and applications. On some days, walking into a treatment room was like stepping inside a chocolate-covered peppermint patty. I mean, your eyes would be watering with the potent smell – but oddly, no one ever complained of headaches.
On the scent
Before exposure to aromatherapy college curricula, we’ve all been introduced to essential oils in unexpected forms. Ask any teen struggling with acne issues and they will know the unforgettable scent of tea tree oil. A traditional medicine of Australia’s Aborigines, the tea tree leaves are dried and crushed to expel the oil which can be inhaled for respiratory issues or applied directly to the skin. This approach is referred to as the “undiluted” or “neat” application of essential oils since it is used without a carrier or base oil.
This is also where the heated debate begins. Purists will extoll the virtues of undiluted applications while the opposing team will debate that it can be harmful, especially if contraindications or potential interactions with a client’s medications are overlooked. Both parties will generally agree on topical, undiluted use for conditions like acne, insect bites, cold sores, acute migraines or reflex points (for earaches, for example).
Despite being all-natural, plant-based products can elicit unpredictable reactions in clients with sensitive skin and allergies. Dermatitis can arise from using essential oils repeatedly as cleaning agents (lemongrass) or in bathwater. Massage therapists can easily suffer from overexposure, too, but that’s another story! (Refer to the Summer 2013 issue of Massage Therapy Canada for my itchy-scratchy experience and unexpected allergy to ylang-ylang).
“The big 3”
Peppermint. Lavender. Eucalyptus. They are the go-to scents because of their reliable effects. One deep breath and the olfactory bulbs light up, sending a hot wire to the amygdala and hippocampus, triggering our memory banks.
Peppermint has long been associated with instant olfactory clarity. Its cousin scent, eucalyptus, was introduced to most of our noses and chests in childhood when a cough or stuffy nose slowed us down. It’s antimicrobial, antifungal and grows aggressively in a garden. In fact, peppermint’s natural odour will deter insects. The leaves can be dried to make a tea, used fresh in a salad or to flavour water. For a post-shift energy boost, an infusion of two teaspoons of fresh leaves steeped in boiling water can be added to a hot bath. For headaches, digestive issues, muscle pain and nausea, offering diluted peppermint oil aromatherapy to your clients can be a welcome addition. But be sure to read the fine print – extracts can be used in cooking but can be toxic to pets.
The word “lavender” alone immediately whisks clients away to the pastoral purple fields of Provence. It relaxes clients (and therapists) almost instantaneously. The essential oil can be used to alleviate motion sickness, help people relax or sleep. Plus, it can be used in daily cleaning tasks. It’s versatile with its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial qualities.
As for eucalyptus, the koalas were onto something long before humans! For nasal congestion and chest colds, this essential oil can promote easier breathing with inhalation. It can help alleviate joint pain, be used on cold sores and as a mosquito repellant.
Burning the midnight oil
If you fancy becoming a distiller of oils, you’ll need gallons of unrefined cold-pressed virgin coconut oil, a lavender field, a still and more than just confidence! All-natural concoctions can easily go sideways and the concentrated medicinal properties of plants is an education that requires a near PhD in botany, chemistry and dermatology. Creating your own blends and oils might seem like a budget-savvy enterprise, but proceed with extreme caution and awareness of our industry’s guidelines for client safety.
Confession: When I was a massage college student, I took matters into my own hands to rectify a worsening cough. Relying on a foggy memory of my great-grandmother’s homemade mustard plasters for nagging coughs, I prescribed and blended a super-duper paste. It was simple, according to my memory. Mix a few tablespoons of dry mustard with water into a thick paste and apply it liberally to your chest and back. As soon as I applied it, I could feel it working its wonder. My chest was on fire! I sensed the heat was part of the escalated healing process and imagined my cough igniting and flaming right out of my system. It was an uncomfortable sleep but I knew that come morning, it would be a miracle. Lesson learned: I forgot the critical part where you create a barrier between the corrosive dry mustard paste and your vulnerable skin. That morning, my chest was scarlet – as though I had experienced third-degree burns. And, I probably did. I think my cough went away but the mustard burn lasted two weeks longer. Keep this in mind when you reassure yourself that “It’s all-natural. What could go wrong?”
Oil and vinegar
Client sensitivities should be paramount and the danger of a practice that includes optional aromatherapy massages is that you can polarize clients who are prone to migraines or nasal congestion from strong scents. Unless you have several treatment rooms to choose from, one peppermint oil-enhanced massage mid-morning can linger long into the day.
When I asked Lucia Romano, a Toronto-based MT, about her essential oil preferences she confessed that in 20 years of practice, she’s never used them. Without an official survey in hand, I’d guess that Romano is one of many in private practice who keep to their well-oiled machine, void of aroma. Certainly, some clients want exactly that but many need (and expect) that deep inhale of lavender to shake them from their workday.
Doug Sutherland, a 26-year-strong MT at Marine Chiropractic & Wellness in Powell River, B.C., was introduced to essential oils by a client from Texas. In turn, Sutherland introduced them to me when I was his boomerang client in Abbotsford, B.C.
“She introduced me to essential oils and Thieves oil is one of my favourites because of its powerful germ-fighting abilities. I like to have it when I am in a crowded situation.” Thieves oil is a blend of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus radiata and rosemary. It was used liberally during the plague by grave robbers who believed in the blend’s power to repel the bubonic bacteria. Sutherland believes that “essential oils are like the medicines of the past. The scent of oils has been detected in ancient tombs but the oils were always missing. It’s presumed that they were more valuable to the thief than the jewels they left behind.”
Sutherland virtually walked me through his apothecary, extolling his preferred blends like Valor (for strength, courage and balance), Abundance (a blend designed to attract success and magnify joy and peace) and Purification which works as a perfume and bug repellant!
If you’re on the scent after reading this, please visit the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists for more information.
Jules Torti is the editor-in-chief of Harrowsmith magazine and author of Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement. In fall 2021, her second memoir, Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago, will be published by Rocky Mountain Books.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 edition of Massage Therapy Canada