The first time I heard about dry brushing, all I could think was “Why are these people brushing their skin? I’m doing good to brush my teeth and change out of my yoga pants.” Never would I have guessed that it would become one of my favorite wellness practices, but it absolutely is.
Although it’s most often recommended for increasing circulation and reducing the appearance of cellulite, the benefits of dry brushing are far more than skin deep. This ancient technique is also considered helpful for supporting detoxification, immune function, and more.
Before we dive in, I want to mention that none of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA, this article is not medical advice, and it is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive in.
So, what is dry brushing?
Although it’s only recently become popular in wellness circles, dry skin brushing has actually been around for 5,000+ years. Known as Gharsana in Ayurvedic medicine, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. (1) Using a body brush with firm, natural bristles, you brush your entire body with circular strokes and/or long sweeping strokes to increase circulation, move lymph fluid, exfoliate your skin, and more.
If you’re not familiar with Ayurveda, it translates from Sanskrit as “The Science of Life” and is one of the oldest systems of healing in the world. Ayurvedic medicine has given us creamy moon milk for restful sleep, skin brightening turmeric masks, stress relief through adaptogens like ashwagandha, and even oil pulling, which modern research confirms can reduce oral bacteria that contributes to tooth decay, gum inflammation, and bad breath.
From the Ayurvedic perspective, dry brushing supports health by stimulating the lymphatic system, which “is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body.”
Because it has beauty benefits as well, dry brushing is often included in treatment packages at day spas. However, it’s easy and far more inexpensive to do at home, and you have the ability to do frequent sessions.
Benefits of Dry Brushing
If dry brushing isn’t part of your wellness routine, here are four reasons to give it a try.
#1 – Detoxification
When you hear the phrase “circulatory system,” do you think of your heart, veins and arteries? Most of us do, even though our bodies actually have two circulatory systems.
Unlike the cardiovascular system which is pumped by the heart, our lymphatic system is a passive circulatory system that relies on movement and respiration to “pump” immune cells throughout the body while removing:
Pathogens – Bacteria, viruses, and certain fungi (3)
Toxins – Environmental pollutants, metabolic byproducts, heavy metals, etc. (4)
Abnormal cells – As we’ll talk more about in the next section, the lymph system contains lymphocytes that destroy damaged cells. (5)
The waste removal function of our lymphatic system plays a huge role in our body’s ability to detoxify. Because it’s a passive circulatory system, it depends on frequent movement to keep things flowing.
In the past, we activated our lymphatic system by moving all throughout the day – walking long distances, manual labor, etc. Even though I exercise or walk nearly everyday, I still don’t move as much as my ancestors did. For that reason – and because it has some lovely skincare benefits, too – I focus on supporting lymph flow through daily dry brushing.
#2- Immune Function
When most of us get an infection like a wound, the infection stays localized to that area. That’s because contrary to the common perception that most infections are in our blood, they’re often in our tissues.
In those cases, the body uses lymph fluid to draw the bacteria or virus into a nearby lymph node, which is standing by with B and T cells. Those cells are part of our adaptive immune system, which means that they are able to adapt to address the specific infection rather than mount the generalized response you see from macrophages.
As mentioned above, the lymphatic system also monitors for (and neutralizes) abnormal cells before returning them to our bloodstream so that they can be expelled from the body via one of our detoxification pathways – in this case, our liver and kidneys. (5)
#3 – Softer, Smoother Skin
Dry brushing exfoliates away dead skin cells and encourages the production of new cells. When dry skin is sloughed off, skin is able to more readily absorb moisturizers such as massage oil or body oil.
#4 – May Increase Feelings of Well-Being, Rejuvenation & Relaxation
We often spend all day go-go-going, juggling to-do lists and schedules – and sometimes this mental load can keep us “in our head” and feeling disconnected from our physical selves.
Spending a few minutes dry brushing at the beginning or end of each day can re-establish that connection and help us feel more grounded.
If that sounds a little woo to you, here’s why it works: Our skin is rich in nerve endings that are connected to our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two modes – sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest).
Dry brushing engages with our autonomic nervous system by activating the nerve endings in our skin. The effect is similar to massage, which some people find relaxing and others find invigorating.
Choosing Your Dry Brush
First, make sure you use a brush with natural bristles. I’ve purchased more than a few because apparently I’m the Goldilocks of dry brushes. Here are the ones I currently recommend:
This is a great starter set. It’s well made and comes with a stiff brush and a softer one, both of which I love. This set is not waterproof and will mold if you use it in the shower.
This brush has longer, firmer bristles than you’ll find with most brands, which makes it a great choice for people who already have a solid dry brushing routine. I am able to feel more movement when I use it, which I love. Because of how stiff the bristles are it’s probably not a good starter brush for people who are new to the practice or have sensitive skin. Like the set above, this brush is not waterproof and will mold if you use it in the shower.
This set of two dry brushes (firm and soft) is water resistant and can be safely stored in the shower. Some people (including me) like to brush right before showering so having them nearby is a great visual reminder. I haven’t had them for very long but so far I’m very happy with them.
How to dry brush
Before getting started, take a moment to notice whether or not you’re thirsty. It’s important to be well hydrated so that metabolic waste and toxins are moved toward the body’s exit systems. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to hydration levels after dry brushing. It’s not necessary to guzzle water, just listen to your body. (I also recommend adding a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon to water in order to improve hydration levels.)
1. Brush toward your lymphatic drains.
Now, to the actual technique. Most dry brushing tutorials say that you should brush toward the heart. While that approach can be helpful for improving skin softness and texture, there’s another approach that I believe may be more helpful for improving lymph flow. It’s based on the techniques used in Manual Lymph Drainage Massage, which was developed by Emil Vodder PhD and his wife, Estrid Vodder, ND.
To understand the benefit of this approach, imagine you have a bag full of cake frosting and the tip is clogged. If you try to apply pressure by squeezing the very back of the bag forward you might eventually release the clog, but it will be more difficult and you have less control over how much frosting is released. It’s better to start by opening up the tip using pressure applied close to the area, then working from there.
Although brushing toward the heart does basically lead lymph toward the lymphatic watersheds (drains) in the body, it assumes they’re already open which is not always the case. In the video below, a nurse explains how to use circular motions near the thoracic duct to open the primary watersheds at the beginning of a session. She then details her entire process, which is the same one that I use.
2. Shower and/or hydrate your skin
If possible follow with a shower and moisturizer like whipped body butter, massage oil, or lotion.
When and how often should I dry brush?
Most people include it in their morning routine because they find dry brushing to be energizing. However, others find it relaxing and prefer to do sessions in the evening, so do what works best with your schedule.
Regarding frequency, some people dry brush a few times per week, while others dry brush daily. It’s best to start slow – a couple of times a week – and work up to a point that feels right for you.
Is dry brushing right for everyone?
Like with most things, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to wellness that works for everyone. Some skin types are more sensitive than others, so whether or not you love dry brushing may be influenced by that.
Personally, I didn’t love it right away. My brush was too soft and it felt like rubbing a limp noodle on my skin. It took some time to find the right level of brush firmness and applied pressure for me. If you don’t love it right away, it may be worth experimenting to see if there’s a combination that works better for you.
There are some instances in which dry brushing should be avoided, though. People with eczema, psoriasis, wounds, sunburns, or varicose veins, for example, should avoid dry brushing over affected areas.