Health & Wellness

Dry brushing can help banish rough skin: Here's how to do it

It's not just your body that emerges weary after the winter — your skin needs to get in shape for spring, too. To combat dryness, one popular, if perhaps counterintuitive, formula requires adding bristles to your routine of moisturizers, creams and oils.

Many people swear by dry brushing — the practice of taking a brush and gently sweeping it over the body on a regular basis — as a way to keep skin smooth and radiant. You may recall Renee Zellweger feverishly employing the technique as the title character in the movie "Bridget Jones' Diary."

Spas tout all sorts of claims about the benefits of dry brushing, but what can it really do for your body?

We asked three dermatologists: Dr. Julie Karen of Complete Skin MD in New York, Dr. Carolyn Jacob of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology and Dr. Mona Gohara, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

What's the purpose of dry brushing?

Dry brushing is another way to exfoliate your skin, or remove some of the dead skin cells from its surface. You can exfoliate wet skin, as many people do with a loofah or a scrub in the shower, but the friction level is different when the skin cells are moist, Karen said.

The dry method will help you to more effectively exfoliate, plus it's less messy, Gohara noted.

What's so great about exfoliation?

Getting rid of the dead cells that give your skin a dry and lackluster look can improve its appearance and give it an "enhanced glow," Karen said.

You want to make sure that after dry brushing, or any type of exfoliating, you apply a moisturizer, added Jacob. Exfoliating helps those creams penetrate the skin more effectively, Gohara said.

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Are there any precautions to take?

Dry brushing should only be done on healthy, unbroken skin. Don't brush around cuts or any type of inflammation. Be very careful to not over-brush, Jacob cautioned. Overdoing it can actually thicken your skin.

"The skin sees it as an injury when it's scratched too much and the top layers do provide some moisture protection," Jacob said. "So if you strip off too much of that, you can end up having some more troubles with more dry, irritated skin, especially in the winter."

Take the time to dry brush gently and not too firmly, Karen added.

How often should you do it?

Gohara recommends dry brushing once a week at most, with a very soft-bristled brush. Focus on the arms, legs, heels, and elbows. The practice can be done year-round, but may be most effective during the coldest months.

"In the winter is when we may need it the most, especially those of us living in the Northeast or colder climates," she said.

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What about claims that dry brushing can reduce cellulite?

Don't count on it. Cellulite — that dimpled flesh often found on the buttocks and thighs most of us curse with a passion— is due to a defect deep in the skin, Karen said, noting that it affects over 95 percent of women.

"I just don't think there's any chance that dry brushing has any impact on this problem," she added.

There really isn't anything you can do to the top layer of skin that's going to affect something deep down, agreed Jacob.

Can dry brushing improve circulation?

Whenever you scratch the skin, you're going to get some more blood to its surface, Jacob said.

"Is that necessary? I don't know. You already have circulation to your skin, if you didn't, your skin would die off," she added.

Karen noted she wouldn't expect a person with circulatory disease to derive any tremendous benefit from dry brushing, but it may improve circulation in general.

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Can dry brushing help relieve stress?

The practice, which essentially means sitting silently for several minutes and massaging yourself, can be soothing, Karen said.

"People who do dry brushing will describe it as energizing, maybe close to meditation; it definitely can have a psychological effect on the patient," she said.

"It's one of these things where if you believe it and you do it because it feels good, and it alleviates your stress, you are probably going to perceive health benefits from it."

This story was originally published in January 2015.

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