Walk into a luxe spa and you may well be given a long-handled wooden brush along with your robe and slippers. What should you do with this thing, exactly?
On the growing list of wellness and beauty treatments billed as “detoxifying”, you may have noticed a little something called dry brushing – which is as appealing or unappealing as it sounds, depending on how you feel about running a brush with stiff bristles against your skin.
For those who aren’t familiar with the technique, it involves daily body massage with a dry, stiff-bristled brush. The recommended dry brushing technique is to stand in a tub or a shower area just before getting wet, and just a soft, natural-fiber brush to massage the skin starting from your legs upwards. The “dry” part of dry brushing refers to the fact that neither the brush nor your skin should be damp while you do it.
You are meant to brush in strokes towards your heart area, as this is where the lymphatic system drains back into your circulation. Around sensitive areas, you can be more gentle, such as the breast area. Then you hop into the shower, do your thing and dry yourself off before applying a natural lotion of essential oil over your skin.
Dry brushing boasts many acclaimed benefits. In fact, you see it offered at many spas nowadays claiming that it helps to unclog pores and eliminate toxins trapped within your skin. It’s been said to help flaky winter skin, increase circulation, exfoliate your skin, stimulate your lymphatic system and reduce unsightly cellulite.
It's another one of those much-touted procedures that flourish in the world of skin care, promising to smooth skin and improve health. Seems like a miracle cure?
Not so fast. Let’s look at the science behind it all.
The only real benefit
It's important to note that there haven't been formal studies done on dry brushing and the effects it has on the skin or body systems. No major studies have supported the health benefits of dry brushing, even though you'll find plenty of positive testimonials all over the internet.
But experts agree that dry brushing does have a benefit. There’s one thing dry brushing really can do, and that’s exfoliate your skin.
While it might not cure you of all your ailments, dry brushing does do an incredible job of sloughing off dead skin cells, and, as a result, leaving your skin silky smooth.
Dry brushing is an effective physical exfoliator. Gently brushing the skin is a form of physical exfoliation, meaning it can slough away dead skin, leaving it smoother.
Dry brushing exfoliates the skin much like the more commonly used body scrubs do, via physical exfoliation. The bristles of the brush manually sweep away dull, rough, flaky skin cells. After a dry brushing session, your skin will feel softer and smoother.
When you exfoliate on dry skin, the friction is increased as opposed to when the skin is wet. When the friction is increased, exfoliation is more effective. Exfoliating this way can enhance skin radiance and light reflection so the skin looks brighter.
It can also give you that ever-sought-after ruddy, youthful glow.
In general, rubbing the skin (whether it is with a dry brush, any applicator, or your hand) will increase blood flow and circulation in the area, doctors say. The skin will then have a pink to red appearance, looking slightly swollen, which can give a more youthful appearance—but this is temporary.
Dry brushing does help to clear away dead skin cells, that much is true. However, if you aren’t past your 30s, your skin is capable of renewing itself without any mechanical help.
The older you get, the thicker and “sticker” the top layer of cells become, and that’s when the use of a dry brush may come in handy. However, using a dry brush, in this case, will only benefit your skin if you don’t do it too regularly or too roughly, as that may damage the skin and do more harm than good.
Some facts about detoxification
While using a brush to massage areas all around your skin does increase blood flow and circulation, it is only temporary. In fact, you could achieve the same rise in circulation by just massaging your skin with your hand.
This fleeting surge in blood flow, however, has not been proven to have any effect on toxins and their elimination.
Among other purported benefits, dry brushing is said to increase drainage of lymphatic fluids, thereby flushing toxins from the body. There’s not much truth to this concept. For one thing, your body handles its own detoxification. Any professional physician will tell you that the only detoxifying organs in the body are the liver and the kidneys.
Your body eliminates toxins all by itself naturally, without any help from dry brushing or otherwise, via your liver and kidneys. So this idea of toxins being “trapped within your skin” really isn’t that true after all. Your body has managed to deal with toxins your entire life, without a dry brush.
What’s more, dry brushing is used on the surface of the skin, while your lymphatic vessels are deep under the skin surface. While exercise and contraction of your muscles may help improve lymphatic flow throughout the body, we do not have good data showing that a treatment like dry brushing is truly effective for this purpose.
Temporary plumping the skin
Dry brushing won’t scrub away cellulite, either. It is said to “reduce cellulite”, as cellulite is a toxic material that is “trapped in fat cells under the skin”. The acclaimed rise in circulation thus is meant to help your body get rid of these toxins.
In reality, the temporary increase in circulation achieved by dry brushing also causes vasodilation—that is, it causes your capillaries under your skin to widen in diameter, thus causing greater blood-flow under the skin surface – which is why skin appears pink after a round of dry brushing. This also causes a temporary plumping up of the skin, which hides cellulite to some degree.
When the circulation slows back down, however, so does the swelling. It does not reduce cellulite, but may cause it to be temporarily less visible. Cellulite in itself is not toxic deposits in your adipose cells, but rather it is caused by fibrous bands that pull down on superficial parts of the skin, resulting in a “dimpled” look.
If dry brushing isn’t all that it is claimed to be, why do people do it so much?
Some of it can be attributed toward the placebo effect at work—if you believe something is going to work, you begin to feel like it is, even though in reality, it may not be doing anything at all.
The mind is a powerful thing, and the placebo effect is capable of duping it into feeling the benefits even if there are none.
A second reason why dry brushing may remain so popular is that when it comes down to it, it is just a massage. And massages feel great. It is the foundation upon which the spa industry is based on.
When it can be harmful
In a word, if you really enjoy dry brushing and your skin looks good, that’s fine. But would dermatologists encourage it? Definitely not.
Last but not least, dry brushing is not for everyone. Brushing too frequently or vigorously—or using a brush with rough bristles—could cause “micro-cuts” in your skin that may lead to infection, doctors warn.
Exfoliating more than once a week could also break down your skin’s protective barriers, leaving your hide less hydrated and prone to irritation, according to dermatologists. For that reason, experts say that people with eczema or dry skin should avoid dry brushing altogether.
People who have sensitive skin should also think twice about dry brushing. These brushes have bristles that are usually pretty firm. If your skin is too sensitive, you may want to switch and try a plain dry washcloth.
Never brush over skin that is broken, which includes cuts, scrapes, lesions, sores or burned skin, including sunburns. Don’t ever brush over areas of infection, redness or general irritation, inflammation, cellulitis or skin cancer. Stop dry brushing if skin becomes irritated or inflamed. We also do not recommend using the brush on your face.
The best time to dry brush is just before a shower. Then you can wash off any dead skin cells and flaky skin. Be sure to apply lotion afterward to put moisture back into your skin.
When it comes down to it, if dry brushing makes you feel good, go for it. Don’t overdo it by not being gentle or doing it too often, instead, take it easy on your skin. Focus on making sure it feels good and comfortable.
Just don’t expect to experience a drastic change in your skin’s appearance or lose all your cellulite – you’d better exercise, eat well and lather on some SPF if it’s sunny, to keep your skin looking its best.