If you have a massage, you probably think of essential oils being smelly, fragrant aromas which are massaged onto your skin before being absorbed by your body.
The skin is designed to be a barrier and to protect things getting into our body. This isn’t to say things don’t get through, it depends on the size of their molecules for their absorption rate and what they are being applied with. Some essential oil components can move through the skin barrier easier than others, so you will receive benefits through this method, but there are a lot of variations which affect the rate at which essential oils are absorbed.
What affects absorption rates?
If you apply an essential oil to the skin in an oil, it’s going to take longer to absorb as essential oils tend to be fat loving molecules. Pop it in a more watery solution, such as aloe vera gel, and you’ll find that it will absorb much quicker due to the skin being fattier than the gel. This is the reason why, when you have an aromatherapy massage, the therapist will recommend you try to avoid showering until later, as it gives the oils a chance to absorb into the body. Oil is used, rather than a watery base, as it helps the hands glide for massage.
Absorption rates are also affected depending on which part of the body is massaged. This is why it is usual to find an aromatherapy massage includes the back, legs and arms. Massaging a larger part of the body encourages absorption, and absorption rates are also different depending on which area of the body you’re applying it to. Is this a bad thing? Not really, the different absorption rates mean your body can get the effects for longer. Also, there is a theory that essential oil chemical components use the sweat follicles to get into the skin and there have been many fascinating conversations about if, and how quickly, the oil absorbs into the body if they are placed on the feet where no skin follicles are found. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any scientific evidence either way and my initial training taught me that the oils are absorbed, but it takes place at a much slower pace than other areas.
Other factors which affect absorption rates include the age of the person, their health and their body temperature. If essential oils are put on a baby’s skin they will absorb into the body quicker than an adult, because the skin is much thinner. Essential oils should not be applied to babies without taking precautions and if it is something you are interested in, you can read my blog post about essential oils and babies.
Precautions also need to be taken for an elderly, frail person or someone whose skin barrier is compromised. The skin barrier can be compromised with broken skin, which can occur through conditions such as eczema, or if there is a wound. In these instances a lower essential oil dilution is required, to allow for the variation in skin thickness and in these situations one size definitely doesn’t fit all. For people who do not fall into the fit and healthy adult range it may be necessary to tailor the oils to the person. If someone is warm, then again, the essential oils will be absorbed into the body more quickly than if someone is cold.
When you have an aromatherapy session very little of the essential oils will actually enter your body through the skin during your massage. Some will be on the therapists hands and some will evaporate before managing to make its way through the barrier. During the session many of your initial benefits will actually come from the inhalation of the essential oils, which can have a more immediate effect on your mood, while the oils absorb.
So, the next time you think about putting oils on your skin, remember, they’re not going to enter your body as quickly as you think!
Louise is an holistic therapist who owns Therapy Centre, Bristol BS14 9HB, a clinic offering a range of holistic and beauty therapies. Louise offers reflexology, aromatherapy, holistic massage, Indian head massage, reiki, baby massage and story massage. She is a mum of two boys and when she is not working she enjoys getting outdoors with her family. For further information about Louise, visit louise-morgan.co.uk.