Is It Safe To Visit a Massage Salon During COVID-19?

It comes down to personal risk tolerance and community COVID-19 levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to many aspects of what was considered everyday life—from how we worked to how we shopped. Another change came in how we were able to maintain past habits such as visiting a nail spa, having our hair cut or colored, and visiting a massage salon.

In its first year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression across the world. So, it only makes sense that people who are more stressed would want to indulge in self-care by getting a massage. But is that a good idea?

Individual Risk Tolerance

As with all things that come with the risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the ultimate decision on whether you're OK with that risk comes down to you. "A lot depends on each person's risk tolerance and how much risk they want to accept," infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.

Unfortunately for you and your aching shoulders, as of March 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 protection guidelines didn't say anything about getting massages. That doesn't necessarily mean it's not safe—it's just not covered by the CDC. So, is it safe to get those knots massaged out?

What's the Risk of Getting a Massage?

In a massage setting, the biggest risk you're taking is being in close contact with another person. That's because COVID-19 spreads between people when a nearby (especially within six feet) infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. This includes the infected person coughing, sneezing, or talking. Others can breathe in these droplets or particles, which can also land on the eyes, mouth, or nose, according to the CDC.

Past that, there may also be some risk in coming into contact with frequently-touched surfaces (like a massage table), since COVID-19 may also be spread by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. (The CDC, however, said this is not the main way the virus is transmitted.)

How Companies Can Keep You Safe

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)—the largest nonprofit, professional association serving massage therapists—provided some pretty in-depth information online on what massage studios and companies can do to keep you safe. In addition to following sanitation recommendations from the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the AMTA recommended that massage therapists do the following:

  • Institute thorough cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing protocols in the massage room, as well as any communal areas and any objects clients touch.
  • Consider using personal protection equipment, including masks and gloves.
  • Practice proper hand hygiene.
  • Space out appointments to allow for sanitization between clients and better social distancing in the waiting area.
  • Tweak the cancellation policy to allow clients to cancel if they show signs of illness.
  • Have clients fill out forms before they show up.
  • Encourage clients to space out, practice good hand hygiene, and use protective equipment like masks.

The Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), a national massage and bodywork practitioner association, also posted detailed recommendations for massage therapists. That included asking therapists to wear a face mask at all times, wear gloves if they have to handle cash or a credit card, and change their shirt or apron after a client leaves. The ABMP also recommended that massage therapists conduct a health pre-screening for clients, remove clutter in rooms, and space out waiting room seating. Rooms should be aired out after the massage, said the ABMP.

Of course, these are all just recommendations, and individual massage parlors and studios can choose to follow them or not. That's why it's a good idea to talk to the place you're considering visiting in advance to find out what safety measures they're doing, said Dr. Adalja.

Dr. Adaja said it really "depends on the logistics." If a massage company follows the guidelines put in place by public health organizations, then it may be "relatively safe," said Dr. Adalja.

Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, agreed. "You can minimize risk so it's relatively safe, but you can never drive risk down to zero," said Dr. Russo. This means wearing a mask if your community COVID-19 level according to the CDC is high, or even medium if you're in a high-risk group.

Alternatives to In-Salon Services

Some organizations can also have people come to your house to give you a massage, but Dr. Adalja said that's really just trading one risk for another. "Corporate massage chains have put in place a lot of different measures that are not going to be present if you're getting a home massage," said Dr. Adalja. "But having a massage at home means you won't have to be in a waiting room, around other people." Still, having a massage therapist come to your house takes some risk out of it for you, but adds extra risk for them.

Getting a massage outside is considered safer than having one indoors. "We know that outdoor settings are less likely to lead to the spread of the virus," said Dr. Adalja. "Anything that can mimic outdoor settings, like opening a window, is ideal. Increasing ventilation could decrease the risk of transmission." Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, agreed. "Ideally, have it done outdoors," said Dr. Watkins.

Ultimately, this is one of those things that boils down to how comfortable you feel taking a risk. When you're trying to make that decision, Dr. Adalja recommended factoring in things like case counts in your area.

Consider Your Personal Situation

You should also take your personal situation into account. "If this is a purely pampering luxury time that you could do without, and you're a vulnerable individual, or you interact with vulnerable individuals, it's best to skip it," said Dr. Russo. "But if massage is really important for your pain-related issues, and you don't live in a multi-generational household or with vulnerable individuals, then it might be worth considering. You have to weigh the risks and benefits."

And, if you know you're likely to be stressing out about your risk of contracting the virus the whole time you get a massage, it's probably not worth it. "It really depends on risk tolerance and how badly you want the massage," said Dr. Adalja.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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