Would you undergo a root canal if your oral surgeon had never studied dentistry? Probably not. Amazing, though, salon professionals nationwide incorporate aromatherapy into their salon services without ever taking a course or even reading a book on the subject. Due to the widespread popularity of aromatherapy in recent years, nail technicians often think nothing of lighting a scented candle at their reception desk or adding a few drops of essential oil to their pedicure soaks.

So, what’s the big deal you may ask. Well, while much has been touted about the benefits to aromatherapy, little has been communicated to the public about its potential dangers.

Chemistry 101

The process by which aromatherapy affects the body is highly complex. The National Association for Holistic aromatherapy (NAHA) is St. Louis, Mo., notes that “when inhaled, essential oil component molecules enter the nasal passages where they stimulate the olfactory nerve, sending messages directly into the limbic system of the brain (which is associated with emotion). The inhalation of essential oils triggers changes…which in turn can stimulate physiological responses within the body via the nervous, endocrine, or immune systems.” Thus explains the almost instant relief from nausea by drawing large breath of peppermint oil, or the invigoration one feels after a hand massage using a citrus oil blend.

While aromatherapy services can greatly benefit your clients, the use of certain essential oils may just as easily harm them. As you were instructed in beauty school, the client consultation is the single most important aspect in determining which services you may perform on your clients. If you use aromatherapy in your salon, the consultation becomes crucial.

Anything can trigger an adverse reaction. Body chemistry constantly changes, people begin and end medication regimens all the time. Seemingly healthy clients can experience unwanted effects from aromatherapy at any moment.

It’s important to know if your clients (or their family members) have allergies. Many essential oils are known sensitizers, meaning they readily cause allergic reactions. Cinnamon and thyme are examples of such oils. Reactions to those oils can manifest themselves in many forms, including contact dermatitis, eczema, and chemical burns.

Watch out for bergamot, lime, grapefruit-any citrus oil- if you live in a sunny climate. These oils are photosensitizers and once your treated client is exposed to ultraviolet light, she will likely experience skin irritation. Some clients will even develop permanent, uneven skin pigmentation due to the reaction of the citrus oil with UV light. This also holds true for clients who use tanning beds or booths. It’s best to advise them to wait at least four hours after treatment before exposing their skin to sunlight.

Many oils are potentially damaging to mucous membranes, such as the lining of the respiratory system. Asthmatics for example, can experience attacks during a service using clove or oregano oils. Asthma attacks can be life-threatening, which is why great care must be taken when treating these clients.

Camphor, rosemary, and hyssop are among the essential oils that nail technicians should not use on clients who have epilepsy. These essences could trigger seizures in those clients.

While some manicurists may not have clients with asthma or epilepsy, most will service pregnant women at one time or another. Particularly during their first trimester, pregnant women should not have the following oils used on them in an aromatherapy service: fennel, jasmine, myrrh, juniper, and peppermint. These are among the many oils known to induce menstruation or other type of bleeding. Though you may only be exposing your client to essential oils for a short time each week, the cumulative effect can be harmful. It’s best to play it safe and avoid emmenagogues altogether while she’s pregnant.

Quality Control

Another question you may want to consider is how you know that your so called “aromatherapy” services are really aromatherapy at all? Currently there are no longer regulations governing the manufacturing of products labeled as “aromatherapy.” All too often, synthetic ingredients are added to or substituted for pure botanical extracts and sold as true aromatherapy products. Always read labels and talk to your distributor to be sure you are purchasing pure, unadulterated essential oils.

There are no legal standards overseeing training in the use of aromatherapy products either. Martin Watt, a certified phytotherapist in England, has spent over a decade studying the botanical sciences and concluded that at present the quality of education in the field of aromatherapy is greatly varied, to say the least. As educational programs are not governed by a national clearinghouse, Watt notes that “many of the so-called recognized courses are being taught by people who themselves are untrained.” While he doesn’t believe it necessary for nail technicians to undergo formal training in aromatherapy, he advises its leisurely study and recommends that before enrolling in a course, the salon professional should first inquire about the background of the instructor.

Due to inconsistency in standards of aromatherapy training and product manufacturing, organizations have been initiated worldwide in an attempt to develop a set of ethics for the education and safe use of essential oils. NAHA is one non-profit coalition dedicated to such goals, as is

The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy based in Tampa, Fla. Not-for-profit organizations such as these are a great resource for nail technicians to gather information about the oils they are using, as well as to inquire about educational courses. Once you’ve armed yourself with knowledge, you’ll be ready to offer aromatherapy services in the salon.

Shelly M. Hess, author of Salon Ovations’ Guide to Aromatherapy, says that to obtain optimum benefits from aromatherapy, manicurists simply need to talk to one another.  “Especially in a salon with a lot of nail stations, you need to know who is using what on which day,” says Hess regarding an overabundance of scents in the air. “You need to create a synergy to avoid opposing aromas,” she adds, noting that too much scent in the air can also cause an unwanted reaction. Although impractical, nail technicians should try to schedule aromatherapy clients with similar health conditions on the same days.

Hess also adds that she is very concerned about what happens after treatment in the salon. While sanitation has always been an important aspect of nail care, yet another concern is proper ventilation. Just as acrylic odors linger and need to be filtered out, so do aromatherapy odors. According to Hess, it takes three full days for the aroma of an essential oil to dissipate. She says that manicurists should “have an oscillating fan on constantly” and fresh air should be circulated at all times to carry aromas away from their source.

While it’s important to select essential oils carefully and be aware of potential dangers, most oils are perfectly safe. Lavender, chamomile, petitgrain, and sandalwood, for instance, are extremely gentle and can be used on almost anyone. When used responsibly, aromatherapy can aid your clients in feeling sensational-emotionally, spiritually, and physically.


Cinnamon thyme. May cause allergic reactions including contact dermatitis, eczema and chemical burns

Bergamot, lime, grapefruit or other citrus fruit. Photosensitizers, don’t expose clients to UV light

Clove, oregano. Avoid use on asthmatics or those with sensitive respiratory systems

Camphor, rosemary, hyssop. Could trigger seizures in epileptics

Fennel, jasmine, myrrh, juniper, peppermint. Avoid use on pregnant women

Marie J. Maheux has completed 400 hours of training in nails and will soon be taking her state boards. She lives in Farmingdale, Maine. As an asthmatic, she extensively researched aromatherapy before incorporating it into her nail practice.

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