“Dry brushing” has been inching into the spotlight lately due to its numerous benefits for skin. This natural beauty ritual might seem like the newest skin care fad, but in reality, different cultures have used dry brushing as a basic component of body care and overall health since ancient times.
Dry brushing: a hybrid of exfoliation and massage
As a full body exfoliating treatment, dry brushing is performed with a soft-bristled brush that is stroked against the skin in slow, circular motions, starting at the feet and hands, then moving toward the heart. The brush loosens and sweeps away dead skin cells, naturally exfoliating the skin surface. As debris, dirt, and excess oil are cleared away, skin becomes smoother and more toned. The exfoliated skin surface can then more effectively retain moisture and absorb nutrients from topical body care products and treatments.
But that’s not all. Dry brushing offers the benefits of massage by energizing the skin, improving microcirculation, and relaxing the body. Just as important, since much of the lymph system lies immediately underneath the skin, dry brushing stimulates lymph flow, helping the body rid itself of toxins. Dry brushing also helps reduce the appearance of cellulite by smoothing out dimpled skin.
Brushing up on cultural beauty
For thousands of years, body brushing has been practiced in different cultures. Ancient Greeks used thin metal tools to exfoliate. Egyptians used alabaster particles. Japanese used dried loofah. Polynesians used crushed seashells. Native Americans used dried corncobs. Although the materials differ from one culture and country to another, the concept is the same—body care starts with brushing and exfoliating.
Likewise, bathhouses across the globe include procedures with brushing, steam, and massage, but they take advantage of whatever materials are found locally to enhance and distinguish their beauty traditions and rituals. For example, the French will take a week off for an extended treatment (or “cure”) at a Thalassotherapy center at least two or three times a year. Spas in Saint-Malo and Dinard, Brittany are examples of luxurious seaside locations where guests come to detoxify the skin and relax the body due to the healing properties of seaweed wraps, hydrobaths, and marine muds rich in minerals, followed by lymphatic massage. In French Brittany, treatments can also feature detoxifying green clay (Montmorillonite) to exfoliate dead skin and remove excess oil. This oxygenating clay is rich in healing minerals that include copper, magnesium, manganese, selenium, and silica, which help keep skin cells hydrated and functioning optimally.
Swept up in global rituals
French women love the ritual of hamam, or Turkish bath, where the treatment takes them through chambers that become progressively hotter. A traditional black soap paste made of olive oil helps draw out toxins. In the next room, the hamam attendant scrubs and cleanses the skin with special goatskin mitts, where impurities exit from congested pores, almost like a paste. Next, the attendant uses a loofah and gel to wash and thoroughly rinse the skin. A mask made of Mediterranean/North African red clay (Rhassoul) is applied for tightening and nourishing the skin. Prized for its high levels of magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, and phosphorus, Rhassoul clay leaves skin feeling firmer, moisturized, and amazingly silky-soft. The mask is then rinsed off, and the ritual finishes with a head-to-toe massage. The experience includes drinking a special tea to assist in creating a sense of utter relaxation and renewal.
One of the most opulent Turkish bath houses in the world is located in Istanbul: Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, which was built in the sixteenth century for the wife of the sultan. After a multi-million dollar renovation, this magnificent palace reopened in 2008 yet still seems to hold the magic of transporting visitors to the era of the Ottoman empire. The interior is stunning, the service impeccable. The luxuriating experience starts in a domed octagonal hot room with soaring arches as well as pristine white marble walls, fountains, and basins dotted with gold-plated taps. Floors with gold and black geometric designs support marble slabs where bathers relax and unwind in the warmth. Steam swirls while the aroma of rosewater and rose petals hovers in the air, allowing healing for the body—and for the mind and soul as well.
An endless variety of distinctive touches
Other cultures have added their own touch to brushing and bathing. Greeks inspired by the Goddess of Beauty incorporated honey, yogurt, and olive into their natural beauty ritual to moisturize, soothe, and create a youthful glow.
Cleopatra, known for her radiant skin and remarkable beauty, used dry brushing before taking milk baths. The lactic acid in milk improves skin texture and hydration.
Egyptians pound the yellow broad bean (Termos) into powder, then mix it with orange blossom water. Rich in proteins and amino acids, this paste is used as a full-body mask that is highly effective for firming the skin and creating a luminous, youthful-looking glow.
Russians exfoliate the skin using salt scrubs, or by beating skin with a broom made of fresh oak, birch, or eucalyptus leaves. Russians are also known for plunging into icy water in celebration of the Orthodox Christian Epiphany… with the added benefit of boosting microcirculation and energizing the body.
The traditional beauty ritual of dry brushing, massage, and bathing is a feast for the senses. However, technology is allowing modern spas to further enhance the experience by offering infrared saunas, hydrobaths, aromatherapy, and even sound and color therapy.
Don’t give this global beauty ritual the brush-off. No matter the culture, country, or era, as long as people need to de-stress and maximize health and healing, these fundamental brushing and bathing rituals will continue to exist. Discovering all the unusual and surprising variations is part of the fun.