The Benefits of Dry Brushing
What Is Dry Brushing?
The practice is exactly what it sounds like: running a dry, firm-bristled brush over your bare skin, usually before a shower or exercise. Methodologies vary, but most recommend brushing your limbs & torso, always motioning toward your heart.
According to a large portion of the natural health community, dry brushing is one of the best things you could possibly do for your health. It will get rid of cellulite, remove toxins from your body, improve circulation, stimulate your nervous system, etc.
Or will it?
If you do a quick Google search for dry brushing you'll come across a cornucopia of natural health & wellness bloggers & some natural medicine doctors singing dry brushing's praises. However, I'm sure we're all aware that blogs aren't always the best source of information, especially if they're actively anti-science.
So what about a PubMed search? (PubMed is a free search engine accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references & abstracts on life sciences & biomedical topics.) Searching "dry brushing skin" only yields 2 results, one from the 50s in an undetermined language, & one in German. My German isn't the greatest, so I can't say for sure what it says. But other than that, nothing. The lack of any real studies on the topic sends up an immediate red flag for me, if only because without any studies demonstrating the effects of dry brushing (toxin removal, nervous system stimulation) outside of speculation, we shouldn't be making such claims. My favourite is the acupuncturist who writes that dry brushing stimulates the nervous system & aids in detoxifying (with no evidence/references, by the way), & then immediately goes on to say that the cellulite & digestive benefits are completely false, with zero scientific evidence backing them. In one breath making claims that haven't been verified, in another condemning claims that haven't been verified.
The fact of the matter is, there isn't a shred of evidence that suggests dry brushing does much of anything, at least nothing outside of the very logical & presumably expected - exfoliating.
“I know dry brushing is popular, but the actual benefits are unclear,” says Dr. Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery & a clinical professor at Georgetown University.
More than just the lack of evidence, there's also the fact that everything we currently know about the body tells us that this isn't how the body functions.
If you're open-minded & you've made it this far, thank you.
Hypothetically, a massage (which can be a nice side effect of dry brushing) could stimulate lymphatic drainage in whatever part of the body you’re working on.
Though there are some findings (1, 2, 3) that have supported proposed theoretical concepts & suggested the potential efficacy of manual lympathic drainage techniques (MLDTs) like dry brushing *might* provide, in animal models, extrapolation of these findings to applicability in the human species is currently inconclusive.
Manual lymphatic drainage techniques remain a clinical art founded upon hypotheses, theory, & preliminary evidence. Researchers must strive to clarify the biophysical effects of the proposed benefits in humans.
Get Rid of Cellulite
Anyone who has cellulite knows that there's not a whole heck of a lot you can do about it, & let me assure you, if dry brushing even remotely improved my cellulite over the year or so I committed to trying it a while back, I'd be shouting it from the rooftops. After a few weeks of dry brushing, I thought it had been reducing my cellulite, but then realized that I had also been working out & displacing fat with muscle, which helped to reduce the appearance. Sure enough once I stopped working out, my cellulite came back.
The fact of the matter is, cellulite is largely in our genetics (although sometimes influenced by diet, lifestyle or hormones), & the only known ways to reduce the appearance of cellulite are to eat a healthful, balanced diet & exercise to reduce the fat content in cells. Sorry, I know it sucks - but there's hope for all you dimply-bummed folks out there. I was able to drastically reduce the appearance of my cellulite with diet & exercise.
The skin is the largest organ of the body; this means that it has one of the most intricate circulatory systems. Yes, our skin is exposed to environmental toxicants, & it does produce toxins (like dead skin cells), but the circulatory system efficiently sends them off to the liver which eliminates them just as efficiently, without needing any help (except in very rare cases).
Rather than delve into the mess that is the concept of "toxins", I'll instead point you to my blog post on pseudoscience where I'm sure you'll find all the answers you need regarding flushing "toxins" from the body.
Increased Blood Flow/Circulation
While there's no argument that dry brushing will increase blood flow & circulation (but, so will rubbing the skin with your hand, or any other object for that matter), called vasodilation, your skin will return to normal almost immediately after you've stopped brushing it. But surely this temporary surge in blood flow helps your body remove waste or "toxins", though, right? Unfortunately, there's no evidence of this, either.
Alas, we come to the one logical result we can expect from dry brushing - mechanical exfoliation. Just like using slightly abrasive facial scrubs will slough away dead skin cells, so will using a brush on your skin.
When we're young our skin's outermost layer (the epidermis), which has a microlayer of dead skin cells, turns over fairly efficiently without any need for mechanical help (called desquamation). This is because as the skin cells make their way to the surface layer, their attachment to the skin cells underneath them becomes weaker. Eventually they shed off, & become a meal for dust mites. Yum, yum.
But, as we age (usually after our 30s) our skin cells become "stickier", & don't shed as efficiently, which can contribute to a dull appearance. For this reason, regular exfoliation can help to brighten up the appearance of the skin temporarily, just as any exfoliant will do.
A common skin condition called keratosis pilaris (KP) could theoretically benefit from dry brushing, as it serves to prevent the buildup that would result in KP - but keep in mind there's still no evidence of this & at this point it is only speculative.
This in & of itself is a decent reason to take up dry brushing, if you're over 30 or if you have a predisposition to skin cell buildup. And as winter approaches & the cold weather begins to affect our skin, dry brushing might be a good idea to help keep your skin looking fresh.
It is also possible that dry brushing may work to our advantage in a more covert way. Indeed, not everything that is of benefit can easily be captured by medical research. When we think of meditation & massage, things that were once dismissed as pseudoscience, they have now been linked to meaningful psychological & physical benefits. Having dry brushed & thoroughly enjoyed the sensation, it's possible that it might work similarly to a massage in decreasing stress.
We know that massages increase people’s feeling of well-being & happiness, so if dry brushing is done in the same way, it stimulates people in the same way.
The Bottom Line
As they say, you do you—& if dry brushing makes you happy, then go for it. I will dry brush my skin from time to time before a shower when my skin feels dull & needs a good exfoliation - plus, I do love the feeling, it gives me goosebumps!
Using dry brushing as a method to exfoliate your body gently & infrequently is a great idea. But don't expect to see more results, & dry brush with caution.
Brushing too frequently or vigorously, or using a brush with rough bristles, could cause micro-cuts in your skin that may lead to infection. Exfoliating too frequently (more than once a week) could also break down your skin’s protective barriers, leaving your skin less hydrated & more prone to irritation.