You’ve probably heard about dry brushing given its popularity in recent years thanks to beauty and wellness bloggers who have shined new light on the age-old practice. There is not much scientific research to support dry brushing specifically (and probably won’t be—can you envision a scientist brushing the fur of a tiny mouse?), but there are potential perks that have roots in science that may make it worth trying.
Dry brushing is the practice of using a soft bristle body brush over the entire body, usually before a shower. You brush the dry skin in upward strokes toward the heart. Typically you start at the feet and work your way up. The theory behind brushing towards the heart is that you are working with the body’s natural lymph flow . Dry brushing originated as an Ayurvedic ritual and has roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
While the practice sounds more like a beauty ritual than anything (goodbye, dead skin!), dry brushing has an interesting potential health benefit: stimulating the lymphatic system. “The lymphatic system is part of the immune system , composed of a large network of lymphatic vessels that carry a clear fluid called lymph directionally towards the heart. The lymphatic system helps to remove waste and toxins from the tissues of the body,” says Helaine Schonfeld , a health coach at Parsley Health New York .
So why would you need to stimulate your lymphatic system, anyway? Unlike blood, lymph fluid does not have a powerful organ like the heart to “pump” it and help move it through the body. “Because there is no ‘pump,’ the lymphatic system relies on the body’s respiration and muscle contractions to continuously push lymph fluid toward the heart to be properly circulated throughout the body,” Schonfeld explains. And stagnant lymph is thought to promote toxin accumulation and prevent the body from getting important immune cells (called lymphocytes) where they are needed to defend the body against infection and disease.
It’s thought that stimulating the lymphatic system can improve the body’s ability to get rid of cellular wastes, foreign bodies, dead cells, toxins, and excess fluid. Although the research on manual lymphatic stimulation technique isn’t cut and dry, many osteopathic doctors and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners have used various techniques thought to help move the lymph, including lymphatic massage. Dry brushing could have similar effects, but more research is needed.
According to Schonfeld, other methods used to help circulate the lymph include muscle contraction (from exercise) and alternating hot and cold showers.
Dry brushing skin can further enhance detoxification since removing the layer of dead skin allows the body to remove more toxins, according to Schonfeld. “The skin is our largest organ, about 1/3 of toxins are excreted through the skin. Dry brushing works by helping to unclog pores and excrete toxins that can get trapped beneath the skin. When the skin is healthy and free from toxins and dead skin cells, it allows the lymphatic system, which has the job of removing toxins from the body, to function optimally.”
Besides exfoliation, dry brushing can stimulate a sense of relaxation—it’s a calming ritual to incorporate before a sauna, bath, or shower. That’s because, similar to massage, dry brushing may decrease the sympathetic fight-or-flight response .
Anyone can add dry brushing to their wellness toolbox since it may be helpful for supporting overall health and detoxification and has little to no risks (just don’t brush too hard!). Since you’re likely overexposed to toxins from air, food, plastics, and other environmental sources, it’s helpful to support the lymphatic system and the liver as much as you can. However, you may especially benefit from incorporating dry brushing if you suffer from certain conditions.
“Dry brushing might be recommended as a complementary practice for patients who have a build-up of waste and toxins such as mold, heavy metals, histamine, hormonal imbalances, have impaired detoxification, and to support liver detoxification, ” Schoenfield says. “Dry brushing may help detoxify the body by stimulating the lymphatic system to remove cellular waste, and environmental toxins more efficiently.”
Because the clinical evidence on dry brushing is thin, Schonfeld recommends pairing the practice with other things that support detoxification, such as spending time in a sauna (fun fact: heavy metals such as lead, aluminum, cadmium, and mercury are actually released more extensively through sweating than through urination ) and castor oil packs. Dry brushing before infrared sauna is particularly helpful since you are removing the dead skin cells before you sweat, allowing more toxins to release.
Dry brushing before another activity that makes you sweat like exercise, a hot bath, or a hot shower is helpful as well since you’re opening up the pores first. Since dry brushing doesn’t take long, being consistent with the practice is the key to seeing the best results. Remember, as with other practices, dry brushing is not a quick fix or magic tool, but it can be helpful in conjunction with an overall medical, nutritional, and lifestyle protocol that a health coach or doctor can help design for you.
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She is passionate about translating expert and science-based wellness advice into accessible and engaging content. Her work is featured on Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, trying out new recipes, and going to new workout classes all over New York City.