By Jenn Sinrich
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. 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? “Dry brushing is the process of using a brush with stiff bristles against the skin to help exfoliate dead cells from the skin surface and enhance blood flow,” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF. “Typically, the brushes that are used have long, natural bristles that offer firm resistance against the skin and long handles so that they can be used even on hard to reach areas like the back.” The “dry” part of dry brushing refers to the fact that neither the brush nor your skin should be damp while you do it.
With roots in ancient healing practices, dry brushing is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., with hopeful users turning to the bristly treatment—performed in a spa setting or at home—for a number of healthy promises, only a couple of which it can actually deliver on. 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. “The only detoxifying organs in the body are the liver and the kidneys,” says Dr. Zeichner.
What’s more, he adds, “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.”
There’s one thing dry brushing really can do, and that’s exfoliate your skin.
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,” Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., NYC dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology, tells SELF. “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,” says Dr. Zeichner. If you hear anyone claim that dry brushing diminished their cellulite, it’s probably this trick of light reflection at work.
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],” says Dr. Levin. “The skin will then have a pink to red appearance, looking slightly swollen, which can give a more youthful appearance—but this is temporary.”
Ellen Marmur, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City, points out that dry brushing stimulates sensory nerves, which can be invigorating. For this reason, she recommends incorporating it into your morning routine, when you want to be alert.
If you want to try dry brushing, be gentle—or skip it altogether if you have sensitive skin.
If you’re considering giving dry brushing a try, Dr. Marmur recommends a medium-firm, plant-based brush for the body. “The brush should never break the skin and it also shouldn’t hurt,” she says. “Also, don’t use the same brush on your face as you do your body, since your face is much more delicate and needs a softer brush.”
“Brushing too vigorously or frequently can create small micro-cuts and cause irritation and dryness,” warns Dr. Levin, who suggests people dry brush no more than one to two times per week—and try not to rub so hard as to cause irritation.
She suggests taking a shower afterwards to rinse away the dead skin cells that were exfoliated, and to follow with moisturizer.
Dry brushing is not recommended for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and excessive dry skin, as it can aggravate the condition—and also cause often painful irritation. “For those with a common skin condition called keratosis pilaris (KP) or ‘chicken skin,’ dry brushing could theoretically improve with exfoliation,” says Dr. Levin, “however it can also worsen the condition since it can cause irritation is done too frequently, too strong, and too aggressively.”
Bottom line, brush with care—and manage your expectations.