As a massage therapist, you likely know that essential oils are wonderful tools for creating a soothing, therapeutic massage experience.
Maybe you are already using essential oils—I hope so. I love to see essential oils as an add-on option when I check in for my monthly massage. I think most massage clients feel the same way about essential oils, even highly sensitive people.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
A client who identifies as a Highly Sensitive Person, often abbreviated as HSP, has an especially sensitive nervous system, which can include sensitivity to noise, music, light and scent, among other stimuli, according to Ted Zeff, Ph.D.’s book The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World.
Ask at Intake
Not everyone with these sensitivities may know she is highly sensitive or be able to clearly explain her needs before a massage session. I recommend adding a few scent-sensitivity-specific questions to your massage intake form. This will encourage open dialogue and help you customize your approach.
You can also ask your client face-to-face before you begin your session. Open-ended questions such as, “Do you have any scent preferences?”; “Are you aware of any scent sensitivities?”; or “Are you easily overwhelmed by strong smells?” can also help identify a highly sensitive person.
Choose Gentle Oils
Which essential oils are best to offer your highly sensitive clients? The last thing you want is for such a client to recoil at the mere mention of essential oils, or experience irritation or a serious reaction because the oil is a bit too intense for his constitution. The key to success with highly sensitive people is choosing the right essential oils and using a low dilution.
Here are my top five favorite essential oils for highly sensitive clients. If you are trained to work with aromatherapy in your practice, keep these gentle essential oils on hand and remember to dilute. As a general guideline, I recommend you start with a 1 percent dilution for a highly sensitive person, about 12 drops of essential oil in four tablespoons of base oil.
1. Roman Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile (L.) All.
Were you expecting lavender to be the first oil? While lavender is gentle and effective with highly sensitive clients, I want to give you some options you may not have tried before, such as Roman chamomile, which is a soothing floral your highly sensitive clients might like.
It has a powerful aroma, but with a toxic rating of 1 on my scale of 1 to 3, chamomile is gentle and exceptionally soothing to the skin as well as muscles and joints, particularly for clients with osteoarthritis. The results of a 2015 study involving knee osteoarthritis, published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, support this use.
Commonly known for its sedative qualities, chamomile’s analgesic action makes it ideal for relieving pain from a variety of issues such as headaches, chilblains and irritated skin. Chamomile will leave your highly sensitive clients—all clients, really—feeling calm and soothed. Remember, however: Chamomile is an extroverted, pushy aroma, so dilute, dilute, dilute.
Citrus oils are a must-have in every massage therapist’s tool kit. I particularly love bergamot for its invigorating, uplifting qualities. It’s ideal when your client may need to massage away the blues; this outcome is supported by a 2008 Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi study, which examined the effects of aromatherapy hand massage on terminal cancer patients’ pain, anxiety and depression.
Like lavender, bergamot contains a constituent called linalyl acetate, which has a sedative effect and anti-inflammatory effect. Linalyl acetate helps release tension and unexpressed emotions. With a toxic rating of 1 on my scale, bergamot is a gentle, yet powerful oil to use with highly sensitive clients if they enjoy citrus.
One thing to keep in mind with bergamot—and most citrus oils—is that if you are using an oil that contains a compound called bergaptene, topical application can cause photosensitivity, which can lead to a severe skin reaction if your client goes out in the sun within 12 hours of having a massage (regardless of level of oil dilution).
To be safe, use a bergaptene-free bergamot oil. It has all the benefits of bergamot without causing sun sensitivity.
3. Neroli, Citrus aurantium (L.) var. amara
Neroli essential oil, another wonderful citrus, is distilled from the delicate blossoms of the orange tree. Serene and uplifting, neroli has a positive effect on both cortisol and blood pressure levels already in the normal range, as supported by the outcome of a 2012 study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The results of 2013 research published in Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences found neroli is also purifying to the skin—especially during severe breakouts.
With a toxic rating of 1 on my scale, this gentle oil is mild enough to be used during pregnancy and with children. Its sweet, floral aroma is a top note in perfumery. Also, it’s uplifting but fades fast, which makes it particularly useful for clients sensitive to smell. Even though neroli will not overstay its welcome and linger, dilute, dilute, dilute.
4. Rose, Rosa damascena (Mill.)
Called the Queen of Flowers by Greek poetess Sappho, rose is one of the most luxurious and beneficial essential oils. Known to have an affinity with the heart, rose promotes healthy circulation and is a cardiac tonic, 2013 animal research showed.
Additionally, rose is known to be a powerful mood enhancer, as demonstrated in another animal study in 2012. It will help bring both happiness and calm to your client.
Rose is not recommended for use during a client’s first trimester of pregnancy. It can be used in the third trimester, however, and is particularly effective during labor. Rose packs an olfactory punch. One drop goes a long way, so again—dilution is the trick!
5. Sandalwood, Santalum album (L.)
Sandalwood is one of the most sought-after aromas in perfumery. It can provide comfort to highly sensitive people, especially highly sensitive men, who often prefer a spicy, woody aroma over lighter florals.
With uplifting, cleansing and skin-supportive qualities, it’s no surprise that sandalwood has had religious and ritual use in India for centuries. It’s perfect for clients experiencing restlessness or muscle spasms, according to animal studies published in Nihon Shinkei Seishin Yakurigaku Zasshi and Phytomedicine, respectively, and on dry or oily skin.
Sandalwood is another forceful, impressive aroma. One drop is all you need.
Drop-by-Drop Dilution Rules
Start small—drop-by-drop. You can always add, but it’s not easy to take oil out once you’ve blended it with a base oil. The five essential oils above are wonderful choices for sensitive clients, but may still cause upset if used straight or neat (undiluted).
A 1 percent or even 0.5 percent dilution is a safe place to start—that’s six to 12 drops of essential oil in four tablespoons of a base oil. If you need to make a more subtle or stronger blend, reduce to 0.25 percent or double the number of drops. So, a 2 percent dilution would be 24 drops of oil in four tablespoons of base oil. If you need to make a larger quantity, the ratios are the same. For example, use 48 drops of essential oil in one cup of carrier oil (1 percent dilution).
Accommodate Highly Sensitive Clients
Essential oils are wonderful tools to use with all types of clients, even folks who let you know they can’t stand smells, don’t use perfumes or identify as highly sensitive people. When the massage therapist is trained to use essential oils and the oils are used mindfully and safely, these five essential oils can elevate a massage session to the next level.
About the Author
Dorene Petersen, Dip.N.T., Dip.Acu., R.H. (A.H.G.), is the founder, president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Sciences. She has more than 35 years of clinical, aroma blending, teaching and lecturing experience in essential oil therapy and other holistic health subjects. Petersen serves as chair of the Aromatherapy Registration Council and is active with the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.