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Massage Today
August, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 08

Protect Your Business: Certification & Permits

By Michael R. W. Houston, Esq.

The trend is clear — as massage therapy becomes more popular with consumers and health care professionals, more and more states are regulating massage therapy. Currently, legislation requiring massage therapy licensing or certification has been adopted or is pending in 43 states and the District of Columbia.1 Nearly two years ago, California adopted legislation providing for the voluntary certification of massage practitioners and massage therapists by the non-profit California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC).

Designed to enable consumers to easily identify credible massage therapists and ensure that certified massage therapists have sufficient training from approved schools, California's statewide standards and certification program has been a success, with more than 22,000 applications received and nearly 16,000 certifications approved by the CAMTC as of October 2010.2 For therapists, perhaps the most significant aspect of California's legislation is that it limits the type of restrictions that cities and counties can impose on certified therapists — a significant help to your business.

As a massage therapist or practitioner, you may have already received your state-level certification; a vote of confidence in your training, expertise and professionalism. However you might be unaware that many cities and counties also have laws affecting massage businesses that must be complied with, in addition to state requirements. For instance, you also must confirm that your preferred location is actually zoned for the use, and you might need to obtain a local business license and potentially, a use permit . Local zoning and permitting requirements should not be overlooked, because operating without proper local permits could lead to closure, assessment of fines and even criminal penalties. A business proceeds at its peril if it operates without first determining what local permits are required.

State And Local Regulations

documents - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Regulations for therapists vary by state, ranging from licensure to certification or registration. States also usually allow for local regulation of massage businesses. (In California, cities and counties may regulate massage businesses under California Government Code 51030. However, as discussed below, Senate Bill 731 limits the type of regulations that cities and counties can place on certified therapists.) Cities frequently handle business permits differently, creating unique local requirements under which owners of massage therapy businesses must operate.

Cities have broad power to restrict most types of businesses and might even entirely prohibit certain types of businesses. Historically, cities can heavily regulate businesses that have a tendency for criminal activity or social ills, such as bars, gaming establishments and "massage parlors." While licensed and certified massage businesses are usually good corporate citizens, cities usually have common (and often legitimate) concerns with respect to massage businesses (as they do for any other type of business), including:

  • Restricting massage businesses in a way that is similar to other "similar" uses (chiropractors, medical uses, acupuncturists, or physical therapy practices).
  • Requiring proper zoning, such as banning a business from a residential neighborhood.
  • Establishing requirements for parking, signage and operational hours.

Understand Permit Requirements

With that in mind, massage therapy businesses must adhere to local zoning and business licensing laws, while ensuring that a city does not take advantage by regulating them too strictly.

Therefore, as a business owner, you need to:

Do Your Homework — Investigate what city permits are needed before signing a lease or buying property. Importantly, don't take a city employee's word about local restrictions. Do the research yourself.

Get Your Permits — Obtain proper approvals before operating. In California, having state certification will facilitate this process. If you need help navigating the myriad of regulations, consider hiring an attorney. Look for a lawyer who specializes in land use and one who is familiar with both state and local requirements.

Know Your State Laws — Don't let the city "over-regulate" your business by making you get unnecessary permits. For example, in California, Senate Bill 731 (adopted in 2008) establishes a state massage therapist certification that, if obtained, protects business owners by prohibiting cities from imposing unique permit requirements on the practice of massage by certificate holders.3 (Cities can still heavily regulate non-certified businesses.) This means that if a massage therapy business is composed of fully certified massage therapists, California cities cannot impose additional permit requirements just because the business provides massage therapy.

Despite your rights in a state like California, prepare for the city to "push back" (either due to ignorance of state law or in hopes that you are ignorant of state law). Consider retaining legal counsel to help educate city officials about state law. A small investment on the front end may save you thousands of dollars on the back end by avoiding delays in opening your business.

Know Your Rights — Know how to respond if a city tries to close you down once you have opened the doors. A permit is a "property right" that a city cannot take from you without following certain rules.


More and more states are passing massage license or certification laws. Generally, such laws help legitimize massage therapy businesses by giving them credibility both with consumers and cities. However, it is unwise to overlook local business licensing and zoning laws. It is imperative that you research local massage therapy and business permit requirements. With the proper paperwork in place, you will be able to focus on your customers and your business.


Additional information can be found at:


  1. Massage State Regulation Guide. Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP). March 2011. Accessed May 31, 2011.
  2. California Massage Therapy Council Update November 2010. California Massage Therapy Council. Accessed May 31, 2011.

Michael R.W. Houston is a partner at Cummins & White, LLP, a business and insurance law firm based in Newport Beach, Calif. Mr. Houston has a practice that involves advising private parties and public agencies on the nuances of developing property in California's complex regulatory environment. He has served as counsel to numerous public agencies and private parties in connection with processing permits for various types of businesses and projects.


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