Some people walk into their booked massage room, toss their robe aside, and strike a fully nude power pose. Others use up all their willpower prying off their beanie. Then they collapse, fully dressed, onto the table.
Between these two exaggerated extremes are the rest of us. We are people who may not be fully comfortable in our birthday suits, but we still want the therapeutic benefits of a massage.
How much will you need to remove before the masseuse can work? You may be picturing the traditional bare skin under a folded sheet scenario. However, it really depends on what kind of massage you’re getting, what you prefer, and possibly on the spa’s policies.
Before we launch into what to wear and when, let’s talk about why you may need to lose a few layers.
Massages and ‘Dress Codes’
Massages are a two-way street. Your masseuse isn’t just rubbing their hands over your back as you melt in relief. They’re also getting important tactile feedback. Their highly trained fingers can feel:
- Where the knots of tension are
- Where you twitch because they hit a sore point
- Tightness in the underlying fascia
- When the muscle starts to melt into relaxation
- Swollen tissues and poor lymph circulation
The more layers of clothing, the less they can detect your body’s state. Extra clothing also gets in the way of applying pressure. These layers make it tricky to give strokes and push exactly where needed. Finally, clothing can rub, ride up, and chafe, making you uncomfortable during the massage.
This may make logical sense, but what if you still feel uneasy about stripping off a layer or two? The fact is, whether your body looks like the ‘before’ or the ‘after’ shot in an exercise infomercial, your massage therapist has seen it all before.
They’ve worked with hundreds or even thousands of people, young and old, fit and fluffy. Over the course of their careers, they have encountered plenty of body conditions and medical aids including:
- C-section scars
- Pacemaker scars
- Mastectomy scars
- Regrettable tattoos
- Silicone implants
- Artificial shoulders and hips
- Shrapnel embedded in old war wounds
- Missing limbs
- Insulin pumps
- Colostomy bags
- Diastasis recti
And more. Much, much more. They could tell you stories… but nothing specific, because they respect their clients’ privacy.
In summary: Whatever you’ve got, they’ve seen it before. If you have a specific concern, tell the masseuse about it. They’ll have the training and experience to work with or around the problem area.
What to Wear to a Massage
Now that the pep talk is out of the way, what should you wear or more importantly not wear? The quickest and easiest solution here is just to call up the massage spa and ask. They get this question all the time, both from people booking their first massage and from people wandering in from a different spa with different policies. Now here’s in general what you can expect:
Swedish-style massages are gentle, full-body experiences. Here, a variety of kneading, long strokes, and tapping motions are used to relax the body. This kind of massage can release lightly knotted muscles, ease exercise-induced soreness, improve circulation, and encourage lymphatic flow.
You will be asked to remove your clothes, but may keep your underwear on. If you wear a bra and choose to keep it on, just note that the straps may interfere with accessing your back. It’s your choice, but you may not get the full benefit of the massage.
Once you’ve undressed, you can lie down on the table. The massage therapist will drape a sheet or towel over you. They will fold or shift it to access different zones of your body.
Hot Stone Massage
This variation typically uses gentle Swedish techniques, but with a combination of handwork and heated stones. The heat radiating from those stones offers the same benefits as above, from easing tension to speeding circulation. However, many people find the experience even more intensely relaxing than a traditional Swedish massage.
You’ll be asked to undress to at least the underwear and will be covered with a sheet. Note: if you keep a bra on, the metal hooks can heat up and grow uncomfortable. That’s why the massage therapist will avoid laying a hot stone on that area of the back. To get the full benefits of the stones, you may want to at least unclasp the bra.
Although these are typically performed with gentle Swedish techniques, many kinds of massages can incorporate aromatherapy oils. These are typically neutral carrier oil blended with a few drops of essential oils. Some common scents used include lavender, rose, mint, and lemongrass.
You’ll undress to the degree needed for the massage therapist to access your body. For full-body massages, as opposed to something like a scalp or hand massage, it’s a good idea to undress completely. This will keep your clothes from getting stained.
Deep Tissue Massage
This kind of massage therapy uses slow strokes and steady pressure to target deeper tissues in the body. This includes connective tissues like ligaments and fascia. It also targets the underside of muscles and even areas deep within the joints.
It’s a good choice for relieving the pain of chronic muscle problems and long-standing tension. However, it’s not the serenely relaxing experience of a Swedish massage. The pressure it takes to get to those deep tissues can be uncomfortable.
For a full-body deep tissue massage, you’re typically naked or in underwear. Some centers will let you get away with a thin tank top and loose shorts. What if you’ve booked a session to target a specific body part like your pulled quad muscle? You’ll need to expose that part. It’s probably easier to just take your pants off than roll the leg up and try to keep it out of your massage therapist’s way.
This is a more technical variation of a standard deep tissue massage. Here the masseuse is trained in the most common muscles to be strained during various sports. They also know what techniques to maximize flexibility and speed the healing process. Because of the extra training involved, it tends to be a bit more expensive than a regular deep tissue massage.
The dress code here is simple. Undress for full bodywork. For a targeted massage, expose what’s needed.
Trigger Point Therapy
Here’s another variation of deep tissue massage. This form focuses on muscular trigger points instead of more general areas. Think applying a fingertip or tool to just the right place to release a knot of tension.
This is in contrast to standard deep tissue massage, which often uses the palm or whole hand to work all around the knot. You’ll need to dress or undress just like above.
Surprised to see this on the list? Although it hails from Eastern methodology, acupuncture is technically a very specialized form of trigger point massage. Here, instead of pressing into the trigger point with a finger or tool, the spa therapist presses in a very fine needle.
Sometimes the needle is then set on fire. Although it sounds unusual, certain people swear by acupuncture for circulation and pain relief.
You’ll need to expose bare skin for the needle, but not necessarily where you think. Acupuncturists don’t head straight for sore spots. Instead, these practitioners follow meridians, which are energy zones mapped out in traditional Eastern medicine. They may press those needles into unusual places like your earlobes, neck, or even your toes.
You’ll need to talk to the massage therapist about your complaint. They’ll let you know if you need to get partially undressed or if you can stay fully clothed.
This athletic form of massage blends deep pressure with yoga-like stretches. The massage therapist will use their palms and fingers, plus a seriously firm grip, to attack knotted or too-shortened muscles. They will also twist you into stress-relieving positions and may even crack your joints a few times. The session itself is as intense as any deep tissue massage. Afterward, all that discomfort will be worthwhile as you end up feeling as loose as a rubber band.
For Thai Massage, you wear stretchy, comfortable clothing that you can be easily moved in. Many spas will give you a set of loose pajamas to wear.
This Eastern massage modality hails from Japan. Here, the masseuse works on your whole body, massaging certain trigger points to release pain and tension and pent-up energy. It is supposedly good for stress and relaxation as well as relieving depression, chronic headaches, and muscle pain.
You can be fully clothed during your Shiatsu massage.
In Eastern cultures, it’s believed that you can manipulate the energy flow throughout the body by hitting reflex areas of the hands and feet. Even if you aren’t fully sold on meridians and life force, you may want to consider this kind of massage. Your hands are rich in nerve endings and your feet take a beating during a busy day. Reflexology can feel very pleasant and relaxing.
Before getting a reflexology massage, you’ll be asked to remove shoes, socks, and gloves.
These massage modalities hail from India. Practitioners are concerned with relieving pain and tension in the short term. In the long term, they try to stimulate stimulating energy flow and toxin release. Some popular Ayurvedic massages include:
Abhyanga — A full body massage with warm herbal oils.
Shirodhara — A head and scalp massage with herb-infused oils.
Marma chikitsa — Trigger point therapy that releases impacted soft tissues.
Garshana — The massage therapist puts on silk gloves and rubs tissue gently, stimulating lymph flow.
The oils involved in most of these massages are impossible to get out of clothes. Traditional Ayurvedic spas may ask you to strip and put on a paper loincloth. The rectangle of paper goes between the legs, from your belly toward your backside. Then you tie the strings over the hips. Modern or fusion spas may simply give you a towel or disposable cotton garments.
After a hard day’s work, you may find that much of your pain and tension is focused on the back, shoulders, and neck. This could be due to a combination of poor posture, uncomfortable office chairs, weaker back muscles, and a tendency to hunch when under stress. Chair massages can specifically target these complaints. They’re popular for people hitting the spa after the workday. Some businesses also treat their employees to an in-office spa session.
The procedure is simple, sit astride a chair and relax as the masseuse gives you a quick 10 to 30-minute session. You’ll be fully clothed during it. However, you may be instructed to take off your jacket or sweater so that the massage therapist can get it at your back.
If you want a head massage, you may want to take your hair out of that tight bun, ponytail, or twist. Head massages can be given anyway, but you’ll get greater benefits if the therapist can work their fingers wherever needed.
This style of massage uses a blend of techniques to address typical complaints of pregnant women. It may target sciatic nerve pain, swollen ankles, digestive issues, etc. Prenatal massages are designed to be effective and safe for all stages of pregnancy. They may be performed on a specially designed table with a belly cut-out, or the body may be supported with rolled towels.
You may be asked to strip to the underwear or wear thin and loose clothing like a tank top and shorts.
How Else Do You Prepare?
Take a shower beforehand and show up with minimal to no scented lotions, aftershave, or perfume on.
You can wear makeup to most massages, but know that it may get smeared. If you’re getting a facial massage, you should come with a clean face. Sunscreen is typically okay.
For scalp massages, use little to no hair products. The product can make your hair stick together, tangle, and pull as your scalp is worked over.
Hydrate beforehand, but not too heavily. You can always ask for a bathroom break. However, this will interrupt the flow of the massage and eat into your booked time.
Speaking of eating, remember that most massages boost circulation. That means that blood is being pulled from your digestive system to other areas of the body. Your abdomen or lower back may be massaged, or you may be contorted into positions that put gentle pressure on your stomach.
This is why massages something make you feel nauseous. Minimize the risk here by eating a snack or light meal beforehand. Save heavy or rich food for a post-massage treat.
The Secret to a Great Massage…
… is your partnership with the massage therapist. Wear as much or as little as you need to both feel comfortable and give them access to the necessary body parts. Talk to them about your concerns and pre-existing conditions. During the session, give feedback if something is uncomfortable. Your massage therapist will work with you to give you a good experience.