These days, many people turn to dry brushing in the hopes of smoothing out the appearance of cellulite. Meanwhile, thousands of years ago, this method of gentle skin massage and exfoliation was used to cleanse, detoxify, and balance the body.
But is dry brushing worth your time? Grab your silk gloves, or a soft- or stiff-bristled brush, and read on to learn about this wellness practice — its potential anecdotal health benefits, the current research limitations, and which healthcare professionals you may want to consult before you try it at home.
History of Dry Brushing
Dry brushing has been used for thousands of years around the world by many cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese.
It’s also commonly attributed to a practice within Ayurveda (a traditional system of medicine from India that dates back 5,000 years), and it is known in Sanskrit as garshana (or “friction by rubbing”), says Veena Haasl-Blilie, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner and the founder of Saumya Ayurveda, an Ayurvedic wellness company in Corrales and Jemez, New Mexico.
While many people today perform dry brushing on its own, in Ayurveda it’s a component of Abhyanga, a type of oil massage, Haasl-Blilie notes.
Common Questions & Answers
How Dry Brushing Works
The mechanism of dry brushing functions both on and below the skin’s surface. “Dry brushing may cause superficial exfoliation, may increase circulation in the skin, and may help with lymphatic drainage, if done properly,” says Patricia K. Farris, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
From a traditional Ayurvedic perspective, dry brushing may help detoxify the body by encouraging a healthy flow of tissue fluids (known in Sanskrit as rasa dhatu), particularly lymph. Rasa dhatu refers to the body’s “inner ocean,” and rasa means “sap” or “juice,” according to Haasl-Blilie. She notes that in the human body, rasa refers to bodily fluids such as those described in conventional biomedicine as plasma (the liquid portion of blood), lymph (a clear-to-white fluid made of white blood cells and intestinal fluid), and interstitial fluids (the fluids around the cells). The Ayurvedic idea is that healthy and balanced fluids promote health in other areas of the body.
There’s still a lot we don’t understand about dry brushing from a conventional Western medical view. However, encouraging the flow of lymph fluid — thereby promoting lymphatic system function — may have beneficial health effects.
According to MedlinePlus, the lymphatic system is a major part of the body’s immune system. It comprises a network of organs, lymph nodes, lymph ducts, and lymph vessels that make and move lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. This intricate network performs many key functions, such as maintaining fluid levels, protecting your body against pathogens (any bacteria, virus, or other substance that can make you sick), and transporting and removing waste products, per the Cleveland Clinic.
“We’re naturally supporting our overall health when we move lymph fluid,” Haasl-Blilie says. In conventional Western medicine, a healthy lymph system is fostered by staying hydrated and living a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise. In Ayurveda, encouraging lymph health can also include dry brushing and other forms of traditional massage, as well as other treatments and lifestyle changes.
Dry brushing may be practiced on your own at home. However, it can also be performed by certified massage therapists or Ayurvedic practitioners. If you choose to go to an Ayurvedic practitioner, note that no U.S. states offer a license in practicing Ayurveda, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. That means you’ll need to do some research to find someone who’s qualified.
Look for a practitioner with extensive training and experience, Haasl-Blilie says, “because harm can be done.”
It’s possible to brush too intensely or frequently, which may cause microtears in the skin that can become irritated, inflamed, and infected, says Nina K. Antonov, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut, and an associate of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Haasl-Blilie suggests looking for someone with many positive client testimonials who’s been trained as an apprentice. Don’t be afraid to hop on the phone and ask the practitioner about their background before you go.
Dry Brushing Risks
Dry brushing is generally safe for most people with healthy skin. However, as with any form of exfoliation, there’s a risk of applying too much pressure or doing it too frequently. That can cause microtears in the skin that can become irritated, inflamed, and infected and can even lead to scarring, Antonov says.
Dry brushing may also irritate already-vulnerable skin in people with inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Aside from causing irritation, dry brushing may also introduce bacteria to open wounds, causing further complications, Antonov says.
“To that point, never dry brush an open wound or sunburned skin,” she adds.
In addition, avoid dry brushing your face, as the skin there is more sensitive than that of the rest of your body, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Who Might Want to Try (and Avoid) Dry Brushing
While research is still lacking, some experts report that dry brushing may improve circulation and skin texture, aid in the stimulation of the lymphatic system, and temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite. If any of these benefits appeals to you, dry brushing may be worth a try, pending approval from your integrative healthcare provider or a board-certified dermatologist.
However, avoid dry brushing skin affected by eczema, psoriasis, acne, infection, sunburn, cancer, moles, warts, or open wounds, Haasl-Blilie says.
People with sensitive skin may want to use a soft natural bristle brush and be especially careful not to apply too much pressure. “If there’s any irritation from brushing, then it’s probably not a great option for them,” Farris says.
Tips for Getting Started With Dry Brushing
Once you have spoken with a dermatologist or integrative healthcare practitioner and determined that this practice is appropriate and safe for you, based on your individual health status, you can use these tips from our experts’ experiences to get started.
1. Start Soft
Traditionally, dry brushing is performed with raw silk gloves, Haasl-Blilie says. However, many people prefer to use bath or shower brushes. “I like a soft natural brush to start with,” Farris says. “Some people have very sensitive skin and can’t use anything that puts too much pressure on the skin.” However, brush stiffness is a highly individual preference, so experiment until you find the one that works best for you. The texture should be pleasing to you and gentle on your skin, Haasl-Blilie says. Bonus tip: Look for a shower or bath brush with a long handle for hard-to-reach areas like your back.
2. Find the Right Pressure
You don’t have to apply much pressure to possibly have an effect on your lymph fluid. “If you turn your forearm over and lay your index finger on the inside of your wrist, that’s the pressure you’re likely aiming for,” Haasl-Blilie says. If you use deeper pressure, it may not be as effective. “Your skin will get some benefit from exfoliation, but you’ll potentially miss the traditional benefits of targeting the lymphatic system,” Haasl-Blilie says. Use enough pressure that the brush doesn’t slide off your skin, but not so much pressure that you feel it under your skin, she suggests.
3. Nail the Process
Some experts suggest that it’s best to dry brush immediately before showering in the morning. Haasl-Blilie recommends dry brushing in the tub or shower, “as skin cells will slough off and may leave a little mess.” Begin at your ankles and work up each leg using long, fluid strokes on the body’s long bones (e.g., the bones of the lower and upper leg) and circular strokes on joints (e.g., ankles and knees). Then brush each arm with the same strokes, starting at the wrist and working toward the chest. Next, move the brush in circular motions along your torso and back, the Cleveland Clinic suggests.
“It’s recommended that you move up and toward the heart with your movements,” Antonov says. Lighten your pressure if and when needed, and stop if your skin becomes red or irritated. Shower normally once you’re finished, and keep in mind that the dry brushing process should take no more than 5 to 10 minutes, Haasl-Blilie notes.
After showering, slather on body oil or lotion to replace lost moisture and help your skin barrier repair. “If you’re heading out into the sun, be sure to use SPF 30 or higher, as freshly exfoliated skin is more vulnerable to ultraviolet rays,” Antonov says.
4. Find Your Frequency
Some people can perform dry brushing four to five times per week, Haasl-Blilie says. However, others may be more sensitive to its stimulating effects and may need to stick to two to four sessions per week, she notes. People with sensitive skin may also need to limit their dry brushing. Antonov suggests starting with only one to two sessions per week and seeing how your skin responds. If any flare-ups occur, be sure to notify your dermatologist or integrative healthcare practitioner, so that they can help you address your concerns.
5. Keep Your Brush Clean
Be sure to clean your brush after every few uses to clear out trapped impurities, Antonov says. “You can rinse with a gentle cleanser or shampoo and let the brush air-dry fully before using it again.”
Resources We Love for Dry Brushing and Ayurveda
The Ayurvedic Institute
The Ayurvedic Institute is the leading Ayurvedic school in the United States. Founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1994, this school offers Ayurvedic treatments and pancha karma. On their website, you’ll find free educational resources, including video lectures and articles.
The Art of Living Retreat Center
This retreat center in Boone, North Carolina, is one of many locations in the United States that offers pancha karma (though those offerings are currently on pause). It also boasts a robust blog. There, you’ll find posts about a range of topics, including dry brushing.
Note: Everyday Health does not endorse these products. There are no universal guidelines about how to dry brush, how frequently to do it, or what types of products to use. After you’ve talked with your dermatologist or worked with an integrative healthcare practitioner, some of these links may be helpful.
Paarvani Ayurveda is an Ayurvedic skincare company. There, you can buy small-batch artisan dry brushing gloves and oils (if you’d like to try different Ayurvedic self-massage techniques) created in Northern California. The company also offers a blog where you’ll find posts about dry brushing and other Ayurvedic practices.
Since launching in 1996, Banyan Botanicals has remained committed to providing organic, sustainable, fair-trade Ayurvedic products. Their website is also filled with helpful articles about Ayurvedic practices like dry brushing. Start with this post from their blog.
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