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A Taiwanese study suggests aromatherapy massage can pollute the air and damage health [Image: Tara Angkor Hotel - Wikimedia Commons]

Aromatherapy massage causes pollution? Really?!

21 October, 2011

Natural Health News — Open season on natural products continues, it seems. A new study has suggested that spas offering aromatherapy massage may be harmful to health.

The study, published in Environmental Engineering Science, looked at air quality in two Taiwanese massage studios and concludes from this data that spas can have elevated levels of potentially harmful indoor air pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

To make sense of the findings we need do “the science bit”.

All fragrances, man-made and natural, are made up of VOCs; that’s the component that is responsible for the fragrance. Plants continually release VOCs some of which we can smell, like the scent of a rose or the smell of freshly cut grass, and some of which we can’t.

The volatile compounds in essential oils are what reach sensors in our olfactory system and in our brains and provoke mood changes such as a feelings of relaxation or happiness.

There are other more prominent and dangerous sources of VOCs in our air at the moment, including but not limited to car and truck exhausts, factory emissions, the by-products of incineration and wood burning, housepaints, the natural chemicals released from forest and crops and even the smoke from backyard  barbecues.

These are what are known as primary sources of the gases and ultrafine particles that make up the VOCs in our atmosphere. They also interact with out bodies in known harmful ways such as triggering asthma and heart attacks.

Secondary sources – the kind this study focuses on – are those which are produced when primary ones interact with the atmosphere and with other chemicals in the atmosphere. These secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) are the by-products of chemical reactions and the rate at which they form is dependent on more things than science actually understands.

Heat, humidity and electromagnetic radiation all have a role to play in determining the volume of SOAs present in our air.

In this study the scientists studied a range of popular essential oils that included lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), peppermint (Mentha piperita), lemon (Citrus limon), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata), as well as a blend oil. They also studied five Chinese herbal oils: Chinese mulberry (Morus australis), perillae folium (Perilla frutescens), Chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis), bupleuri (Buplerum chinense), and ginseng (Panax ginseng).

They looked at SOA formation in a controlled chamber in a lab, where both the temperature and the humidity were very high (25º C and 55% relative humidity), they then sampled the air in two different massage centres in Taiwan (they don’t say where in Taiwan or during what season) on two consecutive days.

The first spa was very small but had adequate ventilation. The second one was much larger but had poor ventilation. In this study the highest levels of VOCs in the air were measured at around 4,500 parts per billion, or ppb in the poorly ventilated spa. That’s pretty high compared to ‘safe’ concentrations are around 3000 ppb.

The scientists conclude that the layout and ventilation within a particular spa may affect the level of indoor air pollutants produced during massage with essential oils, which may be a fair point. To further suggest, however, that there are ‘health risks’ involved with aromatherapy massage is to draw conclusion that cannot be supported by a two day study in two spas.

In the poorly ventilated room in particular, VOC and SOA levels built up very quickly and the question the researchers ask is: is this healthy? The answer is: how long it a piece of string?

As ever it is important to have a sense of context and proportion. Taiwan is a hot humid island off the southeastern coast of China, with average temperatures ranging from 21-25º C and humidity from 50 to 80%. It is also a highly industrialised island and its cities can be very polluted. So local conditions may have played a part.

If the study shows anything it shows the importance of getting the temperature and ventilation right in any therapeutic setting to allow both client and therapist to have the best and most healthy experience possible.

But consider another scenario. Working in an office with loads of computers and photocopiers can surround you in a fog of VOCs and SOAs that range from 1200-55,000 ppb. If a person working in such an environment, walks or takes public transport to a massage session, then makes their way back to the office, which of these environments – the stressed environment of the VOC-emitting office, the crowded, polluted city street, or the relaxed VOC emitting atmosphere of the aromatherapy massage – is likely to do the most damage?

Stress lowers immunity and makes us more vulnerable to the effects of all kinds of pollutants; massage and relaxation on the other hand have both been show to boost immunity.

Given the choice, most of us would take our chances on the massage table any day.