The Skilled Use of Essential Oils

By Rebecca Jones
[Ten for Today]

1. What is Aromatherapy?

Valerie Cooksley, registered nurse, clinical aromatherapist, and cofounder of The Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy in Houston, Texas (, defines aromatherapy as “the skilled and controlled use of essential oils for physical and emotional health and well-being.” It is not, she notes, simply adding a fresh fragrance to the massage room while you work. In fact, Cooksley warns that synthetic fragrance formulas are considered among the top five known allergens and can trigger asthma attacks. 

2. Aim for Results

Massage therapist and founder of Terre d’Essence ( Joachim Creten also warns therapists not to rely solely on their noses when doing aromatherapy work. “You choose your oils based on the goal you want to achieve,” Creten says. “If you use an oil just because it smells good, that’s not aromatherapy.”

3. Ease Into It

Consider how best to introduce clients to new aromas, but always ask permission first. “I begin on clients’ feet,” says Charlynn Avery, a licensed massage therapist and aromatherapy educator with Aura Cacia ( “That’s the point on their body that is farthest away from their nose, so they can experience the physical benefits of aromatherapy first without the aroma.” Stephanie Whittier, founder of Tranquility Spheres Inc. (, suggests an alternative approach. “I advise not using a new oil on clients’ skin until they have had a chance to smell the aroma first to see how they react.”

4. Be Sensitive 

Another good rule for aroma-sensitive clients: find out if a client wants to be left with a scent on his or her body after the massage ends. If not, try using a scent in the treatment room rather than something actually applied to the skin. A spritz of an aerosol scent on the face cover is a great alternative, suggests Brenda Stansfield, clinical aromatherapist and 

owner of Clear My Head ( “What we use opens up sinuses, but not
everybody wants to go back to work smelling like the oil,” she says.

5. Know the Contraindications

Be wary of the hazards and possible allergic reactions posed by aromatherapy. “Any client who has a history of hypersensitive, diseased, or damaged skin should be treated with caution,” Cooksley warns. Use of stimulating oils is also not advised on pregnant women or people with certain medical conditions, including uncontrolled high blood pressure or epilepsy. And remember that some oils, particularly citrus oils, can cause photosensitivity, and clients should avoid direct sunlight for 12–72 hours after exposure. 

6. Avoid High-Trigger Scents

Negative reactions to some scents aren’t limited to physical reactions; certain scents can trigger emotional reactions as well. “Where one person may find lavender really relaxing, it may bring up unexpected emotions in someone else,” Stansfield says. “For some people, the smell of roses reminds them of their wedding day, and for others, it reminds them of a funeral. Avoid high-trigger scents; talk to your clients to find out what those are.” 

7. Vary Your Blends

Therapists who regularly use essential oils are susceptible to skin sensitization themselves, Cooksley says. To avoid that, she suggests varying the blends used, using a lotion on your hands before applying aromatherapy blends, thoroughly washing your hands between clients, and minimizing oxidation of oils (which causes degradation) by limiting their exposure to sunlight and air in the bottle.

8. Tap Into the Healing Properties

With all the potential hazards and client push back, why would a massage therapist even want to incorporate essential oils into her practice? Because, says Valerie Bennis, president of Essence of Vali (, aromatherapy has healing properties, and massage therapists are all about healing. “It really creates a synergy between healing touch and the healing properties of plants,” she says. 

9. Be Protective of Pets

If your practice extends beyond people to animals, be extra careful when using essential oils. “Many people assume that their knowledge of essential oil use transfers directly to animals,” says Lola Michelin, director of education at the Northwest School of Animal Massage. “While the chemistry involved is similar, animals might perceive essential oils as an irritant. Pay attention to the response; some common reactions include itching, sneezing, and even ataxia.” Michelin suggests seeking out a training program for animal aromatherapy before bringing oils into your animal practice.

10. Pace Yourself

So, what’s the best tip for a massage therapist who wants to incorporate aromatherapy into her practice? Don’t just read a book on it, then rush out and buy a lot of oils; ease your way into the modality. “Purchase one oil and use it for a week,” Stansfield advises. “Get to know that oil. Then, the next week, introduce the next oil. That way, your retention is better than if you try to learn everything all at once.” A basic collection of essential oils will cost less than $100. 

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