science of us

Should We Be Dry Brushing?

Photo: olga_sweet/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Though it may alarm you, it did not seem particularly odd to stand naked in my bathroom on a cold February morning brushing the entirety of my dry skin with a brush that looks like the kind of brush ranchers use to brush horses. No, no.

Participating in wellness often means surrendering yourself to a small humiliation. Wearing a panda-face sheet mask on a flight. Paying $12 for a single cup of admittedly incredible juice. Rolling jade over your face, in case that does something. It’s fine. We want to be well, and we’ll be damned if a small humiliation is going to stop us. So the dry brushing was for skin wellness, obviously. And for something with, you know … toxins.

Dry brushing has traveled across time, seamlessly morphing from an ancient pre-bath ritual of the now-dead to a modern pre-bath ritual of the Instagram model. Its devotees swear by its ability to exfoliate, reduce the appearance of cellulite, and aid lymphatic drainage for a more swift removal of toxins. Molly Sims swore by it in 2010 and Miranda Kerr, I’ll have you know, loves it.

Of course, I had to try.

To dry brush, you use a natural-bristle brush to gently but firmly brush your skin in long strokes toward your heart, usually going over each area two or three times. At your belly, you brush in a clockwise motion. Dry brushing is typically done before showering, and should be followed with a vitamin-rich moisturizer. There are two styles of brushes you can choose from: one with a long handle, and one without a handle.

Though the handled version seems more practical, for my dry brush I chose the handleless for easier storage, and because it is cuter. I purchased this one on Amazon for $9.99 because it is “Amazon’s Choice,” a designation I trust even though I do not know what it means or how it is calculated. For my post-brushing replenishing, I chose U.K. skin-care brand de Mamiel’s “Salvation Body Oil,” which includes “seven potent plant oils including argan and prickly pear both rich in essential fatty acids and antioxidants, renowned for strengthening and protecting the skin.” Amazing. It costs $135 and I did not pay for it; I asked de Mamiel if I could try it for this project and they sent a bottle to me, which I loved.

Like a lot of wellness practices, dry brushing is at worst recommended without acknowledgement that its touted benefits are not backed up by clinical data, and at best recommended with acknowledgement that its touted benefits are not backed up by clinical data. Basically, people just feel better after they do it — softer, more energized, as if their stagnant, toxin-laden lymph has been expunged. And feeling is believing.

But what is the lymphatic system, even? It’s similar to the vascular system. Lymph is a fluid that, like blood, exists mostly in vessels that circulate it around the body. It seeps out of the vessels and helps the body’s cells survive, by carrying immune cells. It also carries away metabolic waste, which is I guess what we’re calling “toxins.” Unlike the vascular system, it doesn’t work on a pump; lymph moves throughout the body by process of the body’s own movement. So, does dry brushing help?

“Any massage with light-medium pressure can help with lymphatic circulation,” dermatologist Ivy Lee told me, “but how significant the impact is unknown.” She noted that for medical conditions where lymphatic circulation is impaired, like lymphedema, physical therapists undergo specialized training and certification in manual lymphatic drainage, as the pressure and direction in which the pressure is applied matter.

“I could see dry brushing as a way to exfoliate, but that’s all,” James Hamblin, M.D. and friend I asked to explain the lymphatic system to me, said. “Unless you’re unable to move or have a serious problem with your lymphatic system, you don’t need to brush your skin to make your lymph move.”

“Dry brushing has been touted as providing a number of benefits, but many of these aren’t entirely true,” Sejal Shah, another dermatologist, told me. “There is an element of massage which theoretically may stimulate the lymphatic system, but there is no evidence that rids the body of toxins or aids in digestion.” As for the part about cellulite, “Any improvement in the appearance of cellulite is likely due to temporary skin plumping from the massage aspect.”

Although I am naturally skeptical of health techniques that necessitate belief, I also love doing new little things that might improve me or relax me or energize me, or at least give me something to buy. This is a paradox of the modern, thinking wellness-enjoyer and I am not immune. Gimme that bullshit. Gimme gimme gimme.

So one morning, shivering but energized by new possibility, I brushed my whole dry body with a brush. Admittedly, there isn’t much to say about it. It hurt a little but the pain was slightly invigorating, and it had the satisfying feeling of scratching an itch that you didn’t even know was there. Immediately afterward it made my skin itchy, which I think is because my skin is a little dry and fragile. This was eased first by the shower and then later by the Salvation Body Oil.

The dry brushing made my skin feel softer, it’s true, and the body oil seemed to apply more smoothly. I would touch my arms during the day and think, “smooth.” I dry brushed again the next day, which hurt a little more. The day after that my dry-and-sensitive skin screamed at me, “PLEASE STOP!!!!!!!!!!” Unfortunately, though I would love to be the sort of person with a multi-step morning wellness routine, I do not think I am the sort of person who can brush my dry skin every day.

“If you have sensitive skin, dry brushing may cause irritation or over-drying of the skin,” Shah told me. Plus, it can cause flare-ups in conditions like acne, rosacea, and eczema. Arielle Nagler, another dermatologist I spoke with, told me she doesn’t recommend mechanical exfoliation in general (as opposed to chemical) — it’s just too abrasive for most people.

Will I continue to dry brush? Good question. I’ll certainly continue to hang the cute little dry brush in my bathroom, both to give the appearance of someone who dry brushes and because I’ve already attached its hook to the wall. I’ll certainly continue to use that body oil. As for dry brushing itself, though, I think I’ll maybe do it, like … once a week. Softly.

Should You Try Dry Brushing?