Of the five senses, smell is most connected to emotion and memory, as it is the only sense with a direct path to the brain’s limbic system. This is why people are more likely to remember something they smell over something they see, hear, taste, or touch. According to Janel Luu, CEO of Le Mieux and PurErb, aromas have a powerful effect on the mind, mood, and memory, because when essential oils are inhaled, aroma molecules stimulate receptor neurons in the nostrils and transmit the information to the brain’s emotion-controlling limbic system. “Because this region of the brain also influences emotions and moods, aromatherapy can help promote relaxation and encourage feelings of wellbeing, which is a fundamental part of the spa experience,” she says.
The limbic system is also the part of the brain that accesses memories, so when the brain detects a certain aroma, it associates memories with it. This offers your spa the opportunity to not only satisfy clients’ senses while they are visiting, but also helps your spa differentiate itself from others and encourage brand loyalty. “Overall, aromatherapy adds an extra dimension to the spa experience, increasing its therapeutic benefits and creating a sensory experience that brings a new level of relaxation and wellbeing to the client,” says Luu.
Scents of Place
There are ample opportunities for spas to incorporate aromatherapy into a client’s spa visit. Throughout the reception area, locker rooms, lounges, and treatment rooms, aromatherapy can provide a sense of relaxation and comfort that clients’ desire when visiting a spa. “From the moment you walk into a spa, the aroma has an instant effect on your mood,” says Noella Gabriel, cofounder and creator of Elemis. “When we launched The House of Elemis last year in London, we wanted a signature scent as you enter the door into the retail space and reception area that then flowed into The Speed Spa area. We chose the British Botanicals blend to be infused into the air. It is reminiscent of an English country garden on a summer’s day with an incredible blend of precious oils, including soothing chamomile and lavender with uplifting geranium and palmarosa.”
At Sanctuary Spa at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain (Scottsdale, AZ), aromatherapy plays an integral role in the guest experience. “For our guests, coming to the spa is about so much more than a body treatment or a facial; it is a complete sensory experience,” says spa director LaRae Verros. “Having aromatherapy throughout the spa begins a transformation just by walking through the doors and creates an ambience of calm and relaxation.” According to Verros, Sanctuary Spa’s signature Asian Neroli scent, which features a blend of grapefruit-seed extract, lemongrass, neroli, pettigrain, and rosemary, is both uplifting and fresh, while at the same time relaxing. Aromatherapy oil diffusers are located throughout the spa, from the entrance area and front desk to the locker rooms and lounge areas.
Nicholas James, founder and president of Body Bliss, suggests not overloading clients’ olfactory experience with aromatherapy, so he recommends varying the scents in different areas of the spa and at different times of the day. “When diffusing essential oil into the air, it is good to remember that our sense of smell quickly acclimates to any prevailing scent, so diffusers that are on timers that alternate between different scents at different times can give more impact,” he says. Energizing scents of frankincense, peppermint, or rosemary are good choices for the workout room, while relaxing scents of bergamot, lavender, or vetiver are best in the treatment rooms, suggests Luu.
However, when diffusing in public areas, James recommends oils that appeal to differing tastes, such as citrus and light herbal scents. “It is important to remember that while a heavily relaxing scent may work wonders on your guest’s mood, it may not be ideal for your staff who have to remain alert throughout the day,” he says.
Luu believes that a spa’s use of aromatherapy can provide an atmosphere of “pampered luxury” for clients. For example, essential oils can be misted onto hot or iced towels and robes to promote relaxation and give clients a sense of wellbeing; a lightweight aroma-infused fabric can be tucked inside shoes in the locker room; an aromatic mist can be provided for clients to spray into their hair after a shower; and a gift, such as lavender seeds to take home for planting, also offers a nice touch.
It’s important for spas to also incorporate aromatherapy into the treatment rooms, as that’s where clients typically spend the most time during their visits. Kimberlee Geng, training manager for the U.S. and the Caribbean at Aromatherapy Associates, suggests diffusing aromatherapy into hot towel compresses that will be used during treatments. At Remède Spa at The St. Regis Aspen Resort (CO), for example, guests are treated to lavender-infused towels as they head into their spa services and can choose one of seven aromatherapy scents to be used during their treatment. Geng also recommends adding a few drops of essential oil into a bowl of hot water and placing it under the face cradle, providing a hand-and-foot ritual with an aromatherapy soak prior to a service, and advising estheticians to rub warm essential oils into their hands for guest inhalation pre- and post-treatment. In addition, a spritz of aromatic toner containing an essential oil, such as Bulgarian rose, lavender, or neroli, on the client’s face and neck at the beginning of a facial can also help soothe and relax them. “At the end of the treatment, lightly misting the client again with the same toner helps prolong a sense of serenity and peace of mind,” says Luu.
Essential oils can also be blended into unscented skincare products to be used during facial, massage, and body treatment services. “With custom-blended skincare, each client would have the satisfaction of knowing that the product is a hand-blended artisanal creation that is made fresh, not sitting on a shelf losing its potency,” says Luu. “Customized products also provide for the client’s specific therapeutic needs, allowing a one-of-a-kind experience. Offering the client a choice between different essential oil aromas is a great way to personalize the experience and target specific needs.” Aveda spas, for example, allow clients to choose an aroma, which is then incorporated in all treatments booked by that client—from massages and facials to nail services. “We use the aroma throughout while the guest is relaxed and focused on their breathing,” says Marc Zollicoffer, director of professional spa education at Aveda. Similarly, The Spa at Trump at Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago has an aromatherapy bar where guests can build their own custom body products by selecting an aromatherapy oil and blending it with a sugar scrub and body butter to help create an aromatic healing experience for them in the spa’s shower.
When choosing aromatic oils to be used in facials, consider not only the scent but also how it can benefit the skin. While some oils are too intense for the delicate facial skin, according to James, adding a small amount of oil, such as blue chamomile, rose, or sandalwood, to facial oils and moisturizers can be extremely beneficial for conditions such as broken capillaries, rosacea, and dryness, and tea tree is one of the most effective oils for treating acne. “In facial treatments, you can also turn to essential oils’ more delicate aromatic counterparts, the hydrosols,” he says. “These pure flower waters such as neroli, rose, and lavender can gently cleanse, tone, hydrate, and stimulate skin.”
When it comes to nail services, an essential oil mist can be applied to the hands prior to a manicure service to provide a cooling and aromatic treat, and an essential oil-infused lotion can be used during the hand massage. During pedicures, James suggests applying eucalyptus, mint, and tea tree to the legs and feet to instantly deodorize, refresh, and help suppress fungal infections, and cypress to help tame sweaty feet. In addition, blue chamomile and lavender are soothing and calming oils that are great for use after waxing. “A great part of the magic and value of using essential oils in spa treatments is that you always get extra, beneficial, and entirely unintended consequences,” he says. “You may be applying a damask rose oil to the skin for its regenerative properties, but as the guest lies there inhaling the precious fragrance, it may touch their heart—perhaps allowing some insight or some receptivity that may stay with them and ultimately be the most valuable part of their visit that day.”
Home Sweet-Smelling Home
Offering a variety of aromatherapy retail items is an integral part of enhancing a client’s spa experience and staying top of mind long after the client leaves the spa. “After an aromatherapy treatment, clients should use the same blend at home to bring extra benefits, as the link between memory and smell means the mind and body ‘remember’ the benefits of the professional treatment,” says Geng.
According to James, in the retail area, marketing essential oils sometimes requires a little extra effort from the staff, as their use needs to be explained to guests. “However, when embraced, this interaction with the guest can reap great rewards,” he says. Essential oils can also be used to customize products according to guests’ unique tastes and needs and to allow guests to take home customized gifts for family and friends. “An educated retail staff can enhance the credibility of your spa, be a resource for your guests, and increase sales of aromatherapy-related products enormously,” says James.
Aromatherapy is an effective way to help enhance a client’s entire spa experience, but spas can take this one step further by ensuring clients remember their particular spa when smelling certain aromas. This can be done by creating a distinct signature scent. “Aromas have the ability to create a memory bank,” says Gabriel. “We all know how certain aromas trigger a flashback to a time in our lives, whether it is our childhood, a holiday, a person, or a place. Our emotions kick in as soon as that aroma hits that part of the brain. It is the same with spas. It can be calming and comforting to walk into a space where the aroma triggers a familiar positive emotional response and grounds you.”
Creating a signature scent can be based on several factors, according to Geng, such as indigenous vegetation and what type of ambience the spa wants to create. It may be stimulating, uplifting, serene, floral, woodsy, earthy, or warm. At SiSpa at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Pompano Beach Resort & Spa (FL), a signature scent of white tea and fig is infused throughout the spa to encourage a sense of calm and comfort. “In the locker rooms, a green tea and lemongrass scent overwhelms the senses with a feeling of calm for the ultimate Zen experience,” says Jacquee Thompson, area manager at SiSpa. “In the treatment rooms, aromatherapy is used to transport guests out of their current state of mind and to promote a deep feeling of calm and serenity to help the body let go and relax.” In addition, SiSpa sells its signature scent in the form of a White Tea & Fig Candle for guests to enjoy long after they leave the spa.
The spa’s location can also influence its signature scent selection. For example, according to Luu, a big city spa might opt for a scent that provides relief from the hustle-and-bustle and evokes nature and relaxation, such as woodsy or floral notes of frankincense, juniper, neroli, rose, and sandalwood. A spa in a tropical destination might feature less familiar aromas such as bergamot, kakadu plum, pepperberry, and ylang ylang, which would heighten the novelty of a vacation experience, whereas a spa in a winter resort might offer rich evergreen aromas, such as cedarwood, juniper, pine, or spruce for calming and grounding effects, like at The Spa at Whiteface Lodge (Lake Placid, NY). There, the signature scent contains eucalyptus and cedarwood, which are calming aromas that draw on the Adirondack setting. “Scent carries meaning, and scent stays in the memory, often for many years,” says James. “For a spa, having a signature scent can create positive associations for the guest. It is also a way for the spa to tell its unique story or for it to express its brand and values in a subliminal, yet powerful, way. Translating the signature scent into experiences that the guest can take home and potentially share with friends and loved ones, creates a bond with people—one that is deeply linked to the idea of valuing and promoting wellness.”