What Is Dry Brushing & How Does It Work?
Does dry brushing work wonders for skin health, circulation, and lymphatic drainage? Dry brushing certainly helps me feel wonderful, and that’s not nothing. As a person with a complicated immune system dealing with chronic illness, I love anything that helps me feel like I’m taking care of myself.
Dry brushing—or damp brushing, which I also turn to when I’m feeling extra inflamed—is a pre- or post-shower form of exfoliation. Or as I like to call it, self-care. After all, aren’t all beauty practices a form of self-care?Shop Cruelty-free, Clean Beauty Products
What is Dry Brushing?
Dry brushing is nearly as straightforward as it sounds: the simple practice of using a hand-held brush to gently brush skin. It’s not a miracle cure for anything, but it is an easy and effective way to do a manual exfoliation of nearly the entire body while also engaging the circulatory and lymphatic systems. Dry brushing has a long history, including thousands of years of use in Ayurvedic traditions of India and Nepal.
Brushes used for dry brushing should have stiff, but not hard, natural bristles. (I use this one, which is made of natural fibers and, if I remove the metal grommets, is technically compostable in an industrial heap.) The idea is that the bristles should be firm enough for exfoliating but not so intense that they scratch or irritate the skin—dry brushing should feel good and not cause damage!
Typically, dry brushing is done before showering on dry skin. Some prefer to wet the brush or add a small amount of oil to the brush before brushing the skin, so experiment to figure out which feels best for you. Those of us with super sensitive skin can do it over clothing (think thin pajamas). Another way to do a gentler treatment, and what I prefer, is to “damp brush” after showering instead of dry brushing before. After I use this method, I wipe off with a towel to remove any dead skin that has sloughed off and then immediately apply moisturizer.
Benefits of Dry Brushing
The best benefit of dry brushing is exfoliation. Aside from removing dead skin cells, dry brushing also supports unclogging pores of sweat, dirt, and sebum build-up. Dry brushing also engages the circulatory system, AKA it encourages and increases blood flow, which is great for healing and inflammation. It also can help with lymphatic drainage, though not to the level of a lymphatic drainage massage. The lymphatic system is responsible for moving fluids from tissue into the bloodstream and works hand in hand with the circulatory system.
My favorite benefit is that it feels good! I think of it as a gentle massage I can do myself in between trips to see a professional. Some find dry brushing relaxing, while for others it’s energizing. Either way, it can reduce stress and just generally help you feel like you’re taking care of yourself—the best kind of self-care.
Myths About Dry Brushing
A lot has been made about the connection between dry brushing and immune responses. Although dry brushing does engage the lymph system, which is a key part of your immune system, dry brushing isn’t a secret key to unlocking immunity secrets. It can help move fluid and encourage circulation, but it can’t treat specific ailments.
Dry brushing also can’t really “detoxify” the body—that’s the liver’s job, not the skin’s—but will help with removing dead skin, oil, sebum, and other surface items that clog pores. So, surface trash, if you will.
Some fans of dry brushing report that it improves cellulite, the dimpled flesh that can appear on our more luscious parts (think thighs, bottom, and stomach). No research studies have been published yet indicating a connection between dry brushing and improvements to skin tone, though the increase in blood flow to the area could cause a temporary plumping. So, you may see temporary tightening but dry brushing won’t make the skin magically more elastic or less bumpy. Anyway, I think your bumps are beautiful.
Who Shouldn't Dry Brush?
Those of us with super sensitive skin or conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea need to use caution when dry brushing. Remember: You know your skin better than anyone else, so let your body tell you what it needs. If, after trying a wet brush, an oiled brush, damp brushing post-shower, or dry brushing through clothing, you find your skin is annoyed or you are otherwise uncomfortable, stop. Dry brushing may not be for you, and that’s OK.
I have perioral dermatitis (a form of eczema) along my chin, so I don’t dry brush any part of my face except my jawline. I also have psoriasis on one of my elbows, so I avoid the area to make sure I don’t bring on a painful nerve reaction. And, I often damp brush instead of dry brush when I’m feeling more nerve pain in other parts of my body, like my gut. All this is to say, let your body talk and listen when it does.
Areas to Avoid
Most of this follows logic, but sensitive parts, like nipples, genitals, and anywhere that’s ticklish aren’t made for dry brushing. Likewise, don’t dry brush broken skin, scabs, bruises or other painful or currently healing spots. If you have larger moles or warts, avoid those raised areas that could become inflamed or are more easily injured. And please, skip the brushing if you have a sunburn!Shop Clean, Vegan Body Care Products
How to Dry Brush
The only tools you’ll need is a wooden brush with natural bristles that fits easily in your hand. It doesn’t matter if the brush has a strap or a handle, though either of these will help keep a firm, yet comfortable grip while you brush.
Use more pressure than you would when brushing your hair but not so much that you feel pain or discomfort. A few strokes are all that’s necessary; we aren’t scrubbing here, just gently brushing a bit before moving onto the next area. Follow the advice of the American Academy of Dermatology: Know your skin type, don’t go wild in areas where you’re already peeling, be gentle with your skin, apply moisturizer after, and find the schedule right for your body.
If you are immediately feeling sensitive after a few swipes, try wetting the brush or placing a layer between your skin and the brush, like pulling on a thin pair of leggings.
1. Lower Body
Start at your feet and brush upward towards the heart in long strokes along the tops of the feet to the shins over to the sides of your knees. Brush upwards from the knees to the thighs and stop when you reach the crease where your thighs meet your groin. This helps move fluid from your lower extremities to the lymph nodes located in the backs of the knees and along the groin area.
After finishing the front of your body, brush your calves upward to the bend in the backs of the knees. Continue up the backs of the thighs and over your beautiful butt until you reach the lower back.
Starting with your hand just above your pubic bone, brush clockwise in a circular motion around your belly button. You may want to lighten the amount of pressure on the more sensitive belly area, especially if you have IBS, IBD, or other gut issues. Think of the circular motions as being similar to abdominal massage, which studies show has provided some relief for folx experiencing intestinal issues.
If your brush has a handle, you can also use a circular motion to brush your lower and middle back. I rarely brush my back or shoulder blades, but when I do, I use the same circular motion.
3. Upper Body
Once it’s time to move onto the upper body, do the tops of the arms only. The skin on the underside (palms side up) is often too ticklish and more easily irritated than the skin on the topside (palms facing down). Start at the wrists and again use long, sweeping motions towards the elbows and shoulders.
I like to finish with my neck, which is one of the few places where we’re not brushing in the direction of the heart. Fluid drains easily along a meridian just under the ears, where the ears meet the head. Use your chin as the starting point to brush along the jawline upwards toward the ears for max drainage and de-puffing that delightful double chin.
Can I Dry Brush My Face?
You can, but the biggest benefit to dry brushing the face is exfoliation and products you have are likely better suited for this.
If you *do* want to try dry brushing your face, be EVEN gentler than you’ve been on other parts of your body. You may want to use a smaller brush so that you can be more targeted about where and how you brush. You’ll want to do this in place of your regular exfoliation routine so as not to overdo it. The best areas to practice facial dry brushing are the cheeks, as you have a larger surface area and can angle the brush direction toward the ears for maximum drainage.
If you’re damp-brushing or brushing through clothing, immediately moisturize! Otherwise, dry brush before showering and then moisturize after bathing. I typically use a thicker cream on my hands, feet, and knees, plus I hit my elbows even though I don’t dry brush them. I then use my standard body lotion for the rest of my body and my go-to face moisturizer (a lotion in summer and a heavier cream in winter because it’s SO high and dry in Colorado where I live).
Make sure to clean your brush with gentle vegan soap, body wash, or baby shampoo to get all the gunk out and then let it air dry so it’s ready for the next use.
How Often to Dry Brush
Based on the advice from dermatologists and lymphatic specialists, for the right amount of exfoliation and support to the circulatory system, aim for twice a week. I find once a week is the right amount for me and my skin, but your mileage may vary.
Approach dry brushing the same as other exfoliation—there is too much of a good thing! Just like other exfoliants, dry brushing can dry out or irritate skin if done too often or too rough. So be gentle and start with less before bumping up dry brushing sessions. Harder and more frequent isn’t better.
Dry brushing may not be a magical detoxifier or cellulite-buster, but it is an alternate to body scrubs—I just swap between them on “exfoliation day”—and an excellent way to boost circulation and lymphatic motion. As someone in a dry climate, my skin cells seem to shed more than a snakes, so I turned to dry brushing to help me further descale in a way that also feels good. See if this self-applied massage is right for you.
Leah M. Charney (she/her) is sassy yet classy and is always seeking a beauty routine to match. She delights in both the science and aesthetics of the clean beauty movement.
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