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Massage Mysteries Solved: 15 Answers to Your Secret Spa Questions

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Here’s everything you need to know about how to get a massage.

Who wouldn’t love a massage, especially on vacation? From pampering your whole body with a luxurious Swedish kneading to working out that nagging knot in your shoulder, there are plenty of reasons to book a spa day during your getaway, but don’t spend the whole treatment anguishing about whether you were really supposed to get naked or how much you should tip at the end—you’ll never relax and you’ll waste the experience!

To save your dream vacay from massage misfortune, we’ve thrown your most common (and personal) concerns at accomplished spa professionals from some of the most desirable hotel spas in the world. From who can book an appointment to how to tell your masseuse to zip it, here’s everything you need to know to enjoy a seamless spa experience from start to finish on your next vacation.

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What are the physical and mental health benefits of massage?

Massages are awesome and “because I deserve it” is a good enough reason to get one, but if you need to justify that expense to someone, rest assured there are plenty of known health benefits to getting a good rubdown. Nannaphas Thongpaiwan, Spa Manager of Anantara Spa in Koh Phangan says, “Massages can help to release muscular tension, combat some conditions of muscular injury, and improve blood circulation to relieve headache and migraine disorders. It can also help align your body, allowing for better movement and breathing, putting you more in touch with your body’s needs. Mentally, massages can help you relax and focus your thoughts so you can think more clearly.”

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Can I still get a massage if I have a rash or some other skin condition?

Wake up with a rash on massage day? You might want to postpone that treatment. According to Pilar Gonzalez, Spa Manager of Armonia Spa, getting a massage when you have a rash isn’t recommended, but it’s probably not for the reason you think: the oils in the rash may actually irritate the area even further. Pilar also notes that if you have a skin condition known to be contagious, or which can be infected easily, you should definitely not get a massage. Ultimately, each circumstance is unique and if you notice an irregularity in your skin before a massage, ask a doctor whether it’s safe for you (or your masseuse) to go through with a treatment.

INSIDER TIPMost hotels with spas also have a health center, so don’t worry about finding a doc while you’re on vacay: there’s probably one on site!

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Can I request a specific gender therapist?

Getting a massage is an intimate experience. If you’re on vacation, it’s almost definitely going to be a stranger spending an hour in that quiet room with you, so you may have strong preferences on whether that new friend is a guy or a gal. Fortunately, most hotel spas are more than happy to accommodate gender requests, and most will even ask you about this when you call to book. Marie Parodi, Spa Director of Spa at JW in Chicago notes that spas aim to deliver exceptional, personalized experiences. Marie confirms that guests of Spa at JW are encouraged to communicate any details to ensure their specific needs are met, whether that’s the gender of the therapist or a specific treatment room, and this holds true at any high-quality hotel spa. After all, it’s the hospitality industry, so feel free to make any request that will improve your experience (but be polite!).

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If I get a terrible sunburn, should I cancel my massage?

If you spent the day drinking cocktails by your resort’s picturesque pool, it’s possible you’ll end up with more than a sunkissed glow. If you wake up with newly crisped skin on massage day, all is not necessarily lost. According to Luis Perez, Spa Manager of Boutique Spa at the famed Las Brisas Acapulco, where the super strong sun has been known to leave its mark, you may still enjoy (and benefit from) your massage.  Luis recommends keeping your appointment with a first-degree sunburn (the least severe kind) and letting the therapist know so he or she can be more gentle in sensitive areas. Massage oils may even ease some of your pain. For second- and third-degree sunburns, Luis advises canceling. It’s probably not going to feel great, and you may do more damage than good to your skin.

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Am I supposed to take it all off or keep my underwear on?

Ah, the big question. If you still have that nightmare where you show up naked for your first day of school, you’re probably hesitant to strip it all off for the masseuse. What if you’re not supposed to? Don’t worry: you are.

Omar Acevedo, Spa Manager at Eternity Spa at the Krystal Grand in Los Cabos, assures us that it’s the norm for guests to take everything off. It’s the best way for the masseuse to work on the body without obstruction or disruption. But maybe you just don’t want to. In that case, you don’t have to! Omar emphasizes that a spa’s goal is for customers to relax, so if they don’t feel comfortable taking everything off they should stay in their underwear. The bottom line for your bottom: You do you. And keep in mind that massage therapists are very skilled with sheets, so if you do choose to bare it all, the majority of your body will be covered throughout your entire treatment anyway. If you decide you’d rather be a little more covered, ask the spa for disposable undergarments. They’re better suited for a massage than the ones you came with.

INSIDER TIPWhile getting naked is the norm in Europe and North America, in some more conservative countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, you’ll be asked to keep your bottoms on.

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What if I don’t want the therapist to talk during my treatment?

If you being silent in a small room with a stranger for an hour makes you anxious, strike up a conversation! But, chances are, you’re looking for ultimate relaxation and don’t really want to chat. What if your therapist has other plans, though? Velia González Guerrero, Spa Manager of Fiesta Americana Villas Acapulco has the solution: “Guests lead the experience during any spa treatment so it’s up to you to set the tone. If you’re looking for a quiet experience, let the therapist know at check-in or before the session starts.” If you’re not the direct type, Velia says using simple phrases such as “I’ve had a long day” or “I may fall asleep” will get the point across. This will send a clear and polite message that you’re looking for a silent session.

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If the treatment I chose hurts, can I change halfway through?

Curious about that bamboo stick treatment? Not sure if hot stones might be a little too hot for your taste? Common treatments like Swedish massage are extremely unlikely to be painful, but some of the more exotic sounding treatments may put you in uncomfortable positions or introduce you to pressure and sensations you don’t like. To prevent this situation, follow the advice of Daniel Escalante, Spa Manager of Naum Spa at Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya: show up early and discuss your history and your goals with the spa beforehand. Spas want to know what you want and what you expect, and they’ll help you choose the right treatment ahead of time.

If you do find yourself in discomfort, though, don’t stay quiet. At Naum Spa, and any quality spa, the therapist will change treatments midcourse when possible. Otherwise, they’ll rebook you for different treatment better suited to your needs and comfort. Never stay quiet if you’re in pain, or even if you just don’t like it.

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What if I have to use the restroom during my massage?

Sometimes you just have to go and you may find yourself in the middle of a treatment when the urge strikes. Ashley Arthur, Spa Supervisor of The Ritz-Carlton Spa in Westchester, New York, says that prevention is the best medicine here. “Typically we ask the guest to use the restroom before going into a service. Even if the guest does not think they will have to go, we urge them to try.” But what if you did, and you still have to go? We all know it’s not healthy to hold it, and it’ll certainly be impossible to relax when you’re squeezing it in, so speak up and ask for a moment to use the restroom if you find yourself in this position. It happens. Just keep in mind that other appointments are probably scheduled after yours, so your little break will probably have to count as part of your treatment time.

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Is it true that I need to drink a lot of water first or a massage will hurt?

You may have heard that you need to be well hydrated before a massage or you’ll encounter some discomfort, but Kevin Horton, Lead Massage Therapist of Nidah Spa at Eldorado Hotel & Spa in Santa Fe says that’s just not true. Instead, he suggests drinking plenty of water after a massage. Kevin notes that a massage works your lymphatic system, which takes waste from the body and pushes it out of you. Drinking water helps you from feeling bad as these toxins are moved out of your body. So drink up, but do it after the massage, not before.

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If I'm really ticklish, what can I do to relax so I'm not tensing my body through the whole massage?

If even the threat of a tickle makes you giggle, you might wonder how you’ll make it through an entire treatment without cracking up. The solution is most definitely not to focus so hard on staying stone-faced that you tense your whole body and counteract your treatment. Instead, Kelli Castinceiras, Spa Director of Hotel El Ganzo’s Spa Mindfulness, encourages you to be open and direct with your therapist beforehand. “Communicate exactly what you want and where you are most ticklish.” She also suggests something with a stronger touch than Swedish massage, like a deep tissue or sport massage. Kelli says there are also pressure points and meridians along the body that can help prevent the strong urge to cringe and laugh when activated, so ask your therapist if he or she is familiar with these; they may be able to increase your level of relaxation during your session.

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Is there a non-creepy way to tell the therapist I need my butt massaged?

You’re not a creep, but you really need that rear end worked out, so what’s the smoothest way to get the point across? Daniella Pranjic, Spa Director of The Royal Spa at CHIC Punta Cana, says you shouldn’t think twice about it. “Guests should know that all spa therapists are professionals who are there to help. Compare a massage to a doctor’s visit: Present the problem and the doctor, or in this case masseuse, will help to fix it.”

Keep in mind that not all massages include the buttocks area, so feel completely comfortable asking the spa which massages include the buttocks or sciatic nerve. If you still don’t feel comfortable verbally asking your therapist, Daniella advises writing it down on your pre-massage questionnaire. Overall, she says you should never feel creepy asking for your butt to be massaged. “It’s just another muscle and you certainly won’t be the first to request it.”

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How exactly am I supposed to position my face in that little nook on the table so that I'm comfortable?

Even the most seasoned massage lover may still be wondering where exactly the head should be placed on the hole at the end of the massage table (that’s called the “face cradle,” by the way). Jennifer Aarons, Director of Spa Operations at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s two Atlantic City spas says the first step toward optimal comfort is to make sure the cradle is positioned so your neck is aligned with your back, or is just slightly lower. If it’s not, ask your therapist if it can be adjusted. From there, it’s up to personal preference, but Jennifer has had a lot of experience and offers this guidance: “I have found the most comfortable position is if my forehead is just inside the center opening and my chin can rest on the bottom.”

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Am I supposed to wash off the oils after my massage?

Are the massage oils meant to nourish your skin long after treatment, or should they be removed before getting dressed? This is really up to you and there are benefits to both leaving them on and washing them off, so it’s a win either way. Hoang Thi Diem Thuy, Spa Manager of Chanterelle-Spa by JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay explains that the therapeutic oils and lotions may have been chosen to condition your skin and aid relaxation with aromatherapy, so it’s great to leave them on if you can tolerate the sometimes slick feeling. But if you can’t, or are worried about your clothes, a warm shower or steam bath following a massage can the therapeutic icing on your cake, so take advantage of the spa’s facilities if they offer these amenities, as Chanterelle does.

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Can I use a hotel spa if I'm not staying at the hotel/resort?

You might be staying at a hotel that doesn’t have a spa, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good massage! Natsuda Deumrongpanich, Spa Director of Coral Gem-Spa at Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun says most hotel spas welcome guests who aren’t staying at the property. Just call ahead and make sure there’s availability the day you want to come in. Some properties give priority to guests and limit the number of non-guest treatments or spa day passes, so plan ahead to get one of those coveted spots.

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Who gets a tip, and how much?

Tipping is a source of major confusion on vacations, and for those getting massages, that can extend to the spa. Ricardo Adame, Corporate Spa Director of Solmar Spa Collection in Cabo San Lucas advises that gratuity depends on the discretion of the guest and how satisfactory the experience was. Guests tend to leave the therapist a 15% tip if the service was good, but some have been to known to drop 20% tip for exceptional treatment. It all comes down to the quality of the service. At some spas, gratuity is included, so check ahead (and you can still leave a little extra if you had the best massage ever!). The therapist performing the treatment should always be tipped, and a few dollars to the locker room attendant is always appreciated, too.