Living through a pandemic is incredibly unnerving, so it’s only natural to crave a soothing massage to help ease the tension. And now that many parts of the country no longer have COVID-19 restrictions ― even though cases are rising and we’re entering a third wave ― some people may want to act on that urge.
But even though getting a massage is technically allowed right now, is doing so actually a good idea?
Experts say that, like many things in the COVID-19 era, it depends. If you are high-risk or are frequently in contact with someone who is high-risk, it’s best to minimize close contact with other people as best as you can.
Outside of that, if you do choose to go, you need to take proper precautions and understand the stakes at play. There is a bit of risk involved no matter what, namely the result of coming within 6 feet of another person.
“Whenever you have two people coming together, there’s always a risk that somebody will be infected, even if you both don’t have any symptoms,” said Carl Fichtenbaum, an epidemiologist with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases.
When you get a spa treatment, that risk goes both ways: You are potentially exposing yourself to the virus, and potentially spreading it to your therapist. But Fichtenbaum said people don’t need to entirely rule out getting a massage when both parties are taking the proper safety precautions.
“People need a way to relieve their stress right now, and I don’t want to fault people for doing that,” he said.
The American Massage Therapy Association, a nonprofit professional association that connects and advises massage therapists, has all sorts of information online about what studios and therapists can do to keep themselves and their clients safe. It advises therapists to wear a mask at all times, and studios to space out their appointments to allow for time to clean and to minimize contact in the waiting room, as well as follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and more.
The only problem? The AMTA’s suggestions are just that: suggestions. Official regulations vary by state and locality, and some rules may be less strict depending on where you live. Fichtenbaum recommends going by your own personal safety measures.
Here’s what those should include:
A face mask should be worn at all times
You should wear a mask at all times during your massage, even when you’re facing down, Fichtenbaum said. Your therapist should be wearing one too.
“There’s all this rhetoric about masks right now, and it’s really confusing to people — people think they’re wearing a mask to protect themselves, so they say, ‘Well, I’ll take my chances,’” he said. “But that’s not how we should be looking at this. You’re wearing a mask in large part to protect others, like your massage therapist, from you. That’s the point in all of us doing this together.”
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Pick a location that minimizes your exposure to others as much as possible
Choosing a good place to get your treatment is another crucial component of massage safety — especially because not all spas are equal.
Fichtenbaum’s general rule of thumb is that getting a massage at your own home is the safest option, and after that, smaller massage studios are better than bigger spas.
“Ultimately, the more people there are around, the more likely there will be someone who is infected, so limiting exposure is your best bet,” Fichtenbaum said.
To make an at-home appointment, ask your local massage studio if they do house calls or know others who do. You can also book an appointment with an online massage service. Check out each company’s COVID-19 standards before you make your selection.
The most important task, aside from making sure you sanitize everything and wear your mask, is to pick a spot in your home that has good airflow. Set up shop outside if that’s an option for you; otherwise, place the massage table near an open window.
If inviting a massage therapist into your home is not for you, then going to a smaller local studio may be the next best thing for airflow as well.
“A lot of massage rooms at big spas are not as well-ventilated as smaller, more mom-and-pop studios,” said Georgine Nanos, a family physician who specializes in epidemiology in Encinitas, California. “Good ventilation is crucial, so do your research beforehand: Is there an air purifier? Access to a window? Anything at all that can move the air around? The more airflow you have, the better.”
Cleanliness counts too, of course. Since the American Massage Therapy Association’s recommendations are not binding, ask your massage studio to go over its procedures with you ahead of time. Do they change the sheets after every massage? Do they sanitize all of the surfaces in the room between clients, including the tables where you put your stuff down?
Surfaces don’t seem to be the main mode of COVID-19 transmission, “but still, it’s reasonable to be prudent,” Fichtenbaum said. “There has to be consideration for all of the sanitizing procedures to make sure that none of the surfaces are contaminated no matter what.”
Consider skipping the essential oils
It’s probably best to forgo aromatic massage oils, Fichtenbaum said. Because they smell so rejuvenating, they often encourage people to breathe in deeply — but that’s probably not the best thing to do during the pandemic, he advised.
The virus is primarily transmitted person-to-person through respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing, and taking deep breaths increases your chances of inhaling those respiratory droplets. While the risk of inhaling them during your deep breath is likely lower with a mask on, Fichtenbaum said, there isn’t enough information out there to confirm this. That’s why he thinks it’s best to play it safe and lay off the deep breaths while you’re getting your treatment.
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Don’t get a massage if you’re sick
If you feel under the weather or even have the vaguest of vague symptoms, cancel your massage immediately.
Any potential COVID-19 symptoms ― like a fever or chills, a cough, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing ― are enough to warrant a cancellation. The same courtesy should go for any other illness as well, like the flu or a general cold.
Pass on the facial or any service that requires you to remove your mask
Your best bet when deciding on a spa treatment is to apply the mask rule: If you have to take off your face covering, some experts say it may be best to skip it.
Fichtenbaum recommends skipping facials entirely because, by definition, you’re unprotected during a facial — so the risk factor goes up by a lot.
Ultimately, getting a massage or other spa treatments comes down to how comfortable you feel taking certain risks, Nanos said. Like many options in the COVID-19 era, nothing is going to be 100% safe — but that doesn’t mean that well-being treatments need to be totally off the table.
“We’re living through incredibly stressful times, and in many people, that stress and anxiety is manifesting itself in physical tension — so I support getting as safe a massage as you can to help manage that pain,” Nanos said.
And while you’re looking after your well-being with a massage, make sure you’re taking other health measures as well. That includes wearing a face mask in all public areas, washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick and getting your flu shot.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.