It’s time to brush up on exfoliation

It sounds like old-fashioned snake oil: a virtually free way to improve health and promote beauty in just five minutes a day. But even taking these claims with more than a grain of salt, a broad range of wellness practitioners swear by the practice of dry body brushing.

“Variations of skin brushing have been practised for thousands of years,” says Dr Bruce Berkowsky, an American naturopathic medical doctor who advocates dry body brushing. “For many centuries, the Japanese employed vigorous skin brushing with loofah sponges as a prelude to their traditional hot bath, and among the Cherokee Indians, skin brushing with dried corn cobs to enhance skin beauty and durability was once a traditional practice.”

“Dry brushing can be traced back to the Vedic cultures, and the Romans practised a combing of the body,” adds Anne Bramham, founder of the American Spa Therapy Education & Certification Council. “Modern naturopathy and hydrotherapy practices from the 18th century also embraced dry skin brushing.”

The claimed benefits of the regular practice of dry body brushing include toning of the skin through exfoliation, increased circulation and detoxification, the reduction of cellulite, stress reduction and even an extended lifespan. “Healthy connective tissue and muscles are products of efficient nutrient support and oxygenation, which are promoted by regular skin brushing,” Dr Berkowsky says. “This enhanced circulation is evidenced by the skin flush and feeling of warmth that brushing imparts.”


Sloughing cells

The most obvious effect of rubbing the bristles of a brush against the skin is to physically remove the top-most cells through mechanical friction. Dr Berkowsky explains that the outermost layer of skin serves to protect the underlying layers and is continuously shed and replaced via the multiplication and upward movement of living skin cells. “Inactive, ageing skin does not shed dead cells as easily as youthful skin does, so it is susceptible to cellular build-up, which accounts, in part, for the dry, thick, leathery look of older skin,” he says.

During the practice of dry brushing you may well see cells coming off the skin as a dry powder. Jodie Smith, who works for a company that specialises in making all-natural body brushes, explains why dry bristles are so effective at aiding exfoliation: “Wet bristles clump together, but dry bristles are evenly dispersed and remain firm,” she says. “If you look at a plant bristle under the microscope you will see that it is full of imperfections — these ‘hooks’ are very effective at gathering the dead skin.”


Waste removal

“The skin is the largest eliminatory organ and engaging in regular dry body brushing for approximately five minutes every morning brings nutrients and oxygen to the outer layers of your epidermis, helping it to function optimally,” says Pam Stone, who helped to design a detox program and says dry brushing is key to the detoxifying effect of the program. “Exfoliating the skin while it’s dry gets rid of more skin cells and also allows the skin to breathe. Circulation is boosted as the blood comes the surface, but the movement of lymph is also encouraged, which is the primary way in which waste is removed from the body,” she says.

Essentially, the lymphatic system is the body’s garbage disposal. Lymph removes interstitial fluid from tissues, absorbs and transports fatty acids to the circulatory system and transports immune cells to and from the lymph nodes. Unlike the circulatory system (in which the heart keeps the blood in constant motion), the lymphatic system relies on movement of the body to push the fluid on its way. The stimulation of the lymphatic system by dry brushing helps to remove viruses and bacteria from the body so the nasties that cause illness and inflammation are more efficiently disposed of.


“Beauty is only skin deep”

Even if she was aiming to be philosophical rather than anatomical, Dorothy Parker was spot on. Like it or not, the skin shows the first signs of ageing. “The dermis provides nutrients and moisture to all the skin layers and lends it contour and flexibility,” explains Dr Berkowsky. “When the dermis ages, its connective tissue fibres rigidify, lose resilience and even break into pieces, causing the skin’s support muscles to lose tone and volume and the skin to dehydrate.” Dr Berkowsky explains that skin brushing excites the muscles and nerves of the skin. “The gentle stretching of connective tissues afforded by proper skin brushing helps to increase and regenerate the production of collagen and elastin fibres,” he says. Another feature of ageing is decreased gland function. “The oil secreted by the sebaceous glands coats the surface of the skin and prevents excessive water-loss through evaporation,” Dr Berkowsky explains. “Proper skin brushing stimulates both the oil and sweat glands, and in this way contributes to the restoration of moist, supple skin.” Dr Berkowsky describes how the process of brushing also strengthens the pores, reducing pore enlargement and flaccidity that contribute to the loss of skin tone associated with ageing.

On an anecdotal level from her personal practice of body brushing for more than 10 years, Jodie reports that her issues with ingrown hairs diminished because of the daily gentle exfoliation.

Cellulite fix

Just about any plan that outlines at-home remedies for those lumpy fat deposits women love to hate will include a reference to dry brushing. Dr Berkowsky defines cellulite as a structural disturbance of fat tissue. “The fat content of cellulite-containing tissue is normal, but fibrous nodules surrounding the fat cells give affected skin areas their typical orange-peel appearance.” He believes cellulite formation is related, in part, to lymph congestion and that dry brushing can reduce cellulite by clearing fluids and toxins from fat deposits.


Energy boost

Pam suggests dry brushing can be especially beneficial to those who have a hard time waking in the morning and those who suffer with fatigue, sluggish circulation and congestion. “Stimulation of the blood and nervous system is the reason both wet and dry friction modalities are applied in complementary treatments. I like to think of body brushing as a reflex stimulus to wake the body and make one more alert,” says Pam.


Relaxation response

Though it may seem contradictory, the action of body brushing has also been noted to reduce stress and induce wellbeing. Dr Berkowsky explains that dry brushing’s impact on the nervous system is due to the action of the brushing sensation on the nerve endings that are so plentiful at the skin’s surface. “The skin is impregnated with nerve-end fibres, which play an indispensable role in nervous system activity,” he says. “The relaxing effect elicited by skin brushing decreases muscular tension, which in turn affords better lung capacity, digestion, bowel movements and blood circulation, as well as clearer thinking.”

While dry brushing is something you can do yourself at home, getting a dry-brushing treatment offers an opportunity to get even more benefits, Anne says. “At a spa, the application would be more extensive, more focused.” Receiving a dry brushing treatment from a therapist also enhances the nervous system’s reaction because no effort is required, allowing you to lie back and enjoy the experience.


Long life

Dr Berkowsky’s faith in the benefits of dry brushing extends to longevity. He cites the 1896 publication The Possibility of Living 200 Years, which describes three centenarians’ regimens as follows: “The first, for the last 40 years of his life, used skin brushes vigorously applied. The second, Old Gabriel (who died March 16, 1890 at an authenticated age exceeding 120 years), induced perspiration by heated smoke and vapour while scraping his body with sticks. The third, now in his 100th year, has for the past 60 years followed this unvarying habit: before retiring he has used a towel dipped in water at the temperature of the room, drying by vigorous rubbing.”

Dr Berkowsky suggests from his research that rubbing and vigorous body brushing is key to an extended lifespan. “Among long-lived individuals, skin brushing is almost invariably a primary aspect of their formula for longevity,” he says.


Guide to body brushing

Convinced dry brushing is worth a go? Follow these guidelines from Pam Stone to get the best from this easy practice. If you don’t have a brush, try a rough washcloth or hand towel to get started straight away.

  • Brush steadily with brisk circular or sweeping motions and always toward the heart to support circulation.
  • Be as gentle or as rigorous as feels comfortable.
  • Begin with the sole and then top of each foot.
  • Move up the legs.
  • Spend extra time on the buttocks and thighs if cellulite is a consideration.
  • Brush the palms and backs of the hands and up the arms.
  • Brush the back from bottom to top (a long-handled brush is helpful for this).
  • Gently brush the abdomen in a clockwise, circular motion.
  • When you reach your chest, use outward strokes toward the lymph glands under your arms. Be careful to avoid highly sensitive skin like that on the nipples.
  • Aim for the sequence to take about 5–10 minutes with attention to all areas of the body.
  • Follow the program with a warm-water bath or shower and then give circulation an added boost and tighten pores with a burst of cold for 15 seconds. Finish with a light moisturiser.

Pam notes that you should avoid brushing on sunburnt or broken skin and that the brushing action should be firm, but balanced. “You’re looking to turn light pink, not lobster red, which may indicate you are being a little over-enthusiastic.” She suggests starting off brushing every second day until your skin grows accustomed to the practice.


Choosing a brush

Jodie Smith was inspired to begin making brushes when she returned from living in Asia nine years ago. She researched and designed a natural brush range that she launched in 2005. Jodie’s tips for choosing a brush can be applied to any brand.

In general, plant bristles are the best for dry brushing. Coconut husk and agave (also called tampico and sisal) are the best-quality plant bristle as they are flexible but hard-wearing. These plants also require little to no pesticides to produce and reproduce quickly, which is good for the environment and also means the brush won’t be imbued with chemical residue.

  • Look for fine bristles that will flex while brushing.
  • The shorter the bristle the firmer the brush and the longer the bristle the softer the brush.
  • A brush with a long handle makes it easier to reach your back, but it’s even better if the handle is detachable so you can hold the brush in your hand for the rest of your body.
  • If you find it awkward to brush your back, look for a brush strap to easily reach the entire back, shoulders and sides.
  • The firmness of the brush is an individual preference; some brushes may feel firm to one person and not to others. As you get used to the sensation of dry brushing, you may feel you’d like to graduate to a firmer brush.
  • Choose a bristle firmness you are comfortable with so you don’t have to press hard to get the results.

Different areas of the body will respond better to brushes of appropriate intensity:

  • Use a firmer bristle on the soles and top of feet, legs, buttocks, and arms.
  • Use a softer bristle on stomach, armpits and back.
  • The face and décolletage are especially delicate and should be brushed with care, using a very softer brush.
  • For the scalp I suggest a firm bristle body brush or a wood pin hair massage brush.

Brush care 101

To get maximum effectiveness and lifespan from any body brush, follow this regime.

  • Always clean new brushes before use. Wash in hot soapy water (try a tea-tree oil soap) and leave in the sun or well-ventilated area to dry with bristles facing down.
  • A lot of dry skin cells are sloughed off and build up at the base of the bristles, so it’s essential to regularly clean brushes. As a guide, if you brush daily, wash your brush once a week. Even if you use your brush less regularly, clean your brush at least once a month.
  • If you use a very soft brush, hang it to dry as resting it face down will bend the delicate bristles out of shape.
  • If you brush daily, you should consider replacing your brush every four to six months, as the bristles soften with regular use and cleaning. And when you do look for your next brush, consider whether you’d like to upgrade to a firmer bristle or different style.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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