Finding the right Massage Therapist can be hard.
There's so many personal factors to consider:
price range or budget
your wellness goals
schedule and availability
potential health risks
And there's so many professional factors to consider too:
the therapeutic approach
their education level
professionalism and presentation
value provided in each session
So the "Finding Your Perfect Massage Therapist" series is here to help.
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This article is a detailed tour of the massage table: the good, the great, and the gross. The massage table itself may not be something you consider when choosing a massage therapist, but it's potentially super important in terms of comfort and safety.
First, like any piece of equipment, there is much variance in massage tables. What they are made out of, and how they are made, dictates not only your comfort (the squishiness factor, ability to make adjustments) but your safety (weight capacity, ease of sanitation) as well.
We'll start this tour from the surface most level and peel back each layer like an onion, until we reach the table itself.
The first layer you'll encounter on many massage tables is a top blanket.
Top blankets may be less common in warmer climates, or in large spas where minimizing their laundry load is a concern.
Top blankets can be good for aesthetics, making the room more comfy and inviting.
They can be great when used as a functional means to retain heat, keeping a client warmer throughout the session, promoting greater muscle relaxation. A heavier or weighted blanket may also serve to reduce anxiety or make a client feel more secure and protected while on the table.
But, top blankets can be gross when the massage therapist does not have a commitment to launder them after each use. Top blankets may have minimal direct contact with clients, but frequent laundering is still important to reduce potential cross-contamination and the accumulation of allergens, oils, hair, and bodily fluids like sweat. Every client deserves a fresh set of linens without worry of who or what touched that blanket last. Pro tip: If you're prone to getting chilly, let your massage therapist or receptionist know ahead of time. Most places will have a heavier blanket, or they'll double up, available by request.
Next in this journey through the layers, you'll find sheets.
The most common arrangement is a flat sheet and fitted sheet, but sometimes just two flats, no fitted. And in some countries, you may not find sheets at all, as very large towels (think beach sized) are the norm instead of linens.
Sheets are good at providing a barrier between the client and therapist. They are a simple way to maintain draping (only uncovering the areas of the body that are currently being massaged) and thus ensuring the protection of modesty and professionalism.
They can be great when care and attention has been invested in quality materials and maintenance. Softer sheets may provide a more comfortable experience for the client. Natural fibers instead of synthetics may be useful for those with sensitive skin or allergy considerations.
Sheets can be gross, just like with top blankets, when they are not properly laundered after each client.
There's a particularly gross and unethical practice in some spas called "sheet stacking." The staff applies layers of sheets to the massage table for the number of clients scheduled that day. If there's six appointments scheduled, they'll layer six sets of sheets one on top of the next. As each appointment is completed, the staff only removes the top most layer of sheets, and proceeds to the next appointment.
It doesn't matter what the thread count is sweat and bodily fluids can and will soak through sheets. So with the stacking method, clients are laying on soiled linens. Ick. If you ever notice sheet stacking, demand a full refund, inform the owner/manager, and consider contacting your local health department.
And that brings us to the next layer - arguably, the most important layer of them all.
Most massage tables have many more layers of stuff under the sheets: toppers, warmers, etc. So, we need what's called a barrier.
Good barriers are waterproof, thus sweat-proof, and protect any bodily fluids that soak through the sheets from reaching the deeper layers. They should cover the entire top surface of the table. Any pillows should also have a protective barrier - not just a pillowcase.
Great barriers are also hypoallergenic and are made of a material that can withstand being properly sanitized without easily breaking down.
When a barrier is absent, doesn't cover the whole table, or isn't waterproof - that's gross. While sheets and blankets can be laundered after each client, it's rare that any additional layers beneath the sheets (warmers, toppers, foam) are laundered after each client. Sometimes these layers can't be laundered - like in the case of an electric warmer that has coils throughout. Other times it's just not practical to launder them after each client - because you'd need many duplicates of the same item.
So that's why there needs to be a barrier to protect them from any direct contact.
Pro tip: When you're trying out a new massage therapist, take a peak under the corner of the massage table. Lift up the layers and look for that protective barrier. Ask about it. It's your massage therapist's responsibility to provide this minimum level of sanitation.
Many massage therapists place an electric or infrared heating pad somewhere within the massage table's layers.
Heating pads are good at keeping a client comfortable and warm. Especially when clients disrobe, even in a warm temperature room, it can get chilly after a while.
They are additionally great at providing a therapeutic benefit - both aiding in soothing the nervous system and warming up muscle tissues.
And once more, they can be gross if not properly protected with a barrier. There are a few models out there that are machine washable, but it is unlikely a massage therapist is going to have multiple pads so they can wash each one after each use.
Next, underneath heating pads but right before the table itself may be some kind of padding. Wool, cotton, or memory foam are the most common.
Padding is good to increase a client's comfort on the table - especially for a longer session duration.
They can be great when working in conjunction with heating pads to retain additional warmth. That warmth can be soothing to the nervous system, fostering further relaxation. Padding can also provide extra squish for particularly sore joints and muscles.
Padding can be gross when like mentioned above, there's not an appropriate barrier to keep them safe from daily sweat and cootie accumulation.
Pro tip: Yet another reason a proper barrier layer is important is potential allergy concerns. If you have a wool allergy or sensitively, be sure to let the massage therapist or receptionist know. If their padding is wool, it should have no direct contact with you.
And now we finally get to the table itself. As with any professional equipment, there's plenty of variances. Size, pad quality, weight capacity, height, and adjust-ability are the major factors that can really impact your massage therapy session.
Good tables will provide clients with firm but comfortable support.
Great tables will offer a variety adjustments. The face cradle should adjust up or down, some may also tilt. Elevation options for the knees or chest are important (alternatively, additional pillows or wedges can be used).
Some table have higher quality frames (solid wood instead of aluminum) to accommodate higher weight capacities. And some have thicker pads to increase comfort.
Gross tables are ones with wear and damage that promotes unsanitary or unsafe conditions. Tables should be routinely inspected, washed, and any rips, tears, or loose parts should be immediately addressed. The table is one of the most significant equipment investments a massage therapist makes. Although it's not always the case, the quality of the table can be an indicator of the quality of the massage you are about to receive.
* * * Need additional guidance on other factors related to finding your perfect massage therapist? Check the rest of the articles in the series below:
Perfect Massage Therapist Article Series
Finding Your Perfect Massage Therapist: Verifying Their License Finding Your Perfect Massage Therapist: Massage Tables 101