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Dry Brushing: A Skeptic's Approach

Dry brushing has its origins in ancient civilizations around the world - it’s been used by East Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, Chinese, Japanese, and Scandinavians. Similar to the use of raw silk gloves in India, and the use of a loofah in Japan, dry brushing is essentially a form of exfoliation. Today, it’s performed at a spa or at home using a large, usually wooden brush with firm bristles, done while the skin is dry.

The act of exfoliating while dry - more friction - is what makes dry brushing feel so extra. It’s also what we like most about it. Brushing before the shower is also fun - starting your skincare routine before even turning on the tap is sometimes the nudge we need to continue. But our favorite part is the unique energy boost that it can deliver - the stimulation on dry skin truly wakes up every inch of your body, making it an almost meditative ritual, perfect for easing out of a groggy morning. We think of it as an energizing, smoothing ritual once or twice a week. 

As much as we love dry brushing - and we really do - we’re not going to over-hype its benefits. Over the years, dry brushing has picked up its fair share of health claims like ‘detoxification’ and ‘cellulite reduction,’ which are … not exactly supported by real science. We’ll take you through these claims one by one, and give you our take on each.

Are the claims real?

  • Bright, supple skin: Pretty simple: the physical act of brushing the surface of the skin loosens and sloughs off dead cells. Visually, the removal of dead skin cells will help the surface look brighter, smoother, and more even. And without a layer of excess dead skin cells on top (we still do need some), skincare products can penetrate more easily. This claim is the most easily observed and felt - as a strong form of exfoliation, we trust that brighter skin will be a result.
    • Verdict: Yes! As long as it’s not too harsh for your skin.
  • Increased circulation: Much like any physical exfoliation, stimulating the surface of the skin by friction will increase blood flow in the area. Increased circulation can theoretically ‘speed up’ other bodily processes, but those are other claims we’ll tackle below.
    • Verdict: Yep. But why is this helpful again?
  • Collagen production: The pressure and movement of dry brushing is said to help stimulate collagen production, which is a huge factor in supporting skin's elasticity as we age. Few studies support this, but the theory is widely used across lots of skincare treatments, in spas and at home. If you buy into ‘collagen production from pressure,’ then this falls in the same camp. We don’t see the proof, so we’re not holding our breath for more collagen.
    • Verdict: Probably not, but not our main goal here.
  • Cellulite reduction: This is a complicated claim, as cellulite is a combination of thin skin and fibrous cords holding skin to the muscle beneath. Excess fat between these cords causes uneven dimpling, and thin skin on the surface enhances the visibility of those dimples. The act of dry brushing is said to reduce the overall appearance of cellulite, but not by combating the actual causes. We think it may only help through stimulation (increased circulation may cause slight, temporary plumping) and exfoliation (smoother skin may look less dimpled?).
    • Verdict: May temporarily help the appearance of cellulite, but not actually reduce it. Blame your genes for this one.
  • Banish breakouts: Brushing/exfoliating can help to remove congestion and keep pores clear. The theory here is that eliminating clogs and traps where acne bacteria can hide out and breed can prevent breakouts. The trouble with this claim is that skin with existing breakouts is NOT suitable for dry brushing, as it will irritate an existing wound. And breakouts come from SO many sources - dead skin cells on the surface are not even the main one.
    • Verdict: Healthy exfoliation may help prevent breakouts, but not reduce them. And over-exfoliation can actually cause breakouts - so be thoughtful.
  • Lymphatic drainage: The lymphatic system transports white blood cells and cellular waste + debris throughout the body - kind of a return mechanism for leftovers of the circulatory system. Regular dry brushing is said to help stimulate this pathway, which is why we are often told to brush ‘towards the heart,’ the direction that lymph is traveling. This movement actually happens deep below the surface of the skin, so linking this to brushing the surface is difficult. No real studies support this claim, but it’s a pretty widely circulated thought.
    • Verdict: Not actually proven, but we still brush ‘towards the heart’ just in case it’s working.
  • Detoxification: A pretty general claim, often linked to the lymphatic drainage theory. We have previously used the word ‘detox’ to refer to ‘the removal’ of something, like residue or excess sebum from the skin. With this definition, dry brushing could be ‘detoxing’ us from dead skin cells, I guess? But when this term is used to make grand health claims, especially on an internal level unconnected to the actual treatment, we don’t see it. Brushing the surface of your skin isn’t removing anything from the inside of your body, point blank. It may be stimulating an existing bodily process that keeps us healthy (go lymphatic system), but we think ‘detoxification’ is a stretch here.
    • Verdict: What is ‘detox,’ anyway? Pass.

      Now that we’ve managed our expectations, let’s talk HOW to dry brush:

      • Shower afterwards: As we’ve said: dry brushing is for dry skin. Bathing afterwards is a satisfying way to wash away the flakes that are left behind. (But if you don’t have time, we won’t tell - definitely been there).
      • Brush towards the heart: Whether or not you believe this is boosting your lymphatic system, we think it’s a nice ritual to follow. On arms and legs: start at the hands/feet and move inward towards your trunk. For your back and torso, try gentle circular motions with a general direction towards the heart.
      • Get the pressure right: Areas where skin is thicker - think elbows, knees or feet - can handle a little more pressure. For more sensitive areas like the chest or inner thighs, start with very gentle pressure and pay close attention to how it feels - it should never be painful or leave strong marks. Reduce pressure here accordingly, or skip sensitive areas altogether.
      • Avoid broken skin: Active/open breakouts, rashes, wounds, or other areas of irritation are a no-no. The bristles could disrupt healing or spread rashes/bacteria to other areas.
      • Flushing is normal: You can expect your skin to be slightly red afterwards - like a flush from a workout. This is a normal reaction to friction and increased circulation. Again, if you’re experiencing more than a gentle flush, discontinue use.
      • Moisturize: Follow up post-shower with a rich moisturizer, butter, or oil. Freshly exfoliated skin will more readily absorb skincare products - keep it gentle and rich.
      • Don’t overdo it: Repeat as needed, but not too often! Once a week is a good start, upping to 2-3 times only if results are encouraging.

      And a general warning about physical exfoliation: it’s not for everyone! It’s entirely too harsh for some sensitive skin. Dry brushing should feel relaxing and stimulating. If gentle pressure with the brush still feels like too much, it probably is. You may be better suited for a more gentle physical exfoliant (like a quickly-dissolving fine sugar scrub while showering), a gentle chemical exfoliant (like a cleanser with lactic acid), or none at all! Exfoliation is NOT an essential part of skincare. It’s an extra step that MAY help some skin types.

      Are you already a fan of dry brushing? What are some other claims about this process that you’d like us to weigh in on? Do you have your own rituals around it? Let us know in the comments!

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