By Bruce Berkowsky, N.M.D., M.H., NCTMB
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2000.
We wash it day in and day out. We protect it from the sun’s harmful rays. We rub everything from baby oil to the most expensive potions on it. But are we forgetting one of the healthiest things we can do for our skin?
Skin brushing can sustain or reestablish the skin’s functional integrity and youthful glow. It aids in waste removal, helps slow the skin’s aging process, increases circulation, even improves digestion and alleviates muscular tension. As such, skin brushing is a particularly powerful therapy which can positively impact the entire body.
The History of Skin Brushing
The skin is as major an organ as the heart, lungs and kidneys. Its primary functions include respiration, excretion, blood and lymph circulation, immunity and the conduction of Vital Chi. However, unlike other vital organs, the skin can be non-invasively accessed and mediate systemic rejuvenation by a variety of therapeutic techniques, including proper skin brushing.
Variations of skin brushing have been practiced for thousands of years. For many centuries, the Japanese employed vigorous skin brushing with loofah sponges as a prelude to their traditional hot bath. Prior to bathing (following a hard training session or physical competition), ancient Greek athletes used strigiles — specialized, spoon-like skin scrapers to remove the grime of exertion and encourage circulation. Among the Cherokee Indians, skin brushing with dried corn cobs to enhance skin beauty and durability was once a traditional practice. The Comanche Indians scrubbed their skin using sand from the Texas river bottoms; the Texas Rangers followed their example.
Adolph Just in his Nature-Cure (the root of naturopathy) classic, Back To Nature, tells that he learned the importance of skin rubbing by observing wild animals: “Higher land animals, especially wild boars and deer, in free nature, are in the habit of lying down in small muddy swamps and pools and rubbing to and fro in the mud. After awhile they rub themselves against the earth, trees and other objects. The birds go to brooks or springs, and, by immersing their necks, throw water over their bodies...then they rub or scrub the body using their head, bill and wing elbows.”
Among long-lived individuals whose lifestyles reflect an understanding of “The Laws of Nature,” skin brushing is almost invariably a primary aspect of their formula for longevity. F.O. Havens, in his 1896 publication, The Possibility of Living 200 Years, 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 vapor 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, then drying by vigorous rubbing.”
Havens, after much longevity research, suggested: “The following directions are adapted to nearly all conditions of life, and if persisted in, will be found sufficient to keep the skin in perfect condition: Before retiring, rub the body vigorously with skin brush, hair glove or rough towel until the blood is brought to the surface. Follow this immediately by a sponge bath with the water at the temperature of the room.”
Vital Chi Skin-Brushing System™ Guidelines and Technique
My Vital Chi Skin-Brushing System, which required hundreds of hours of research and experimentation to develop, evolved from my training and experience in anatomy and physiology and various bodywork disciplines, as well as the Oriental healing arts. I designed this system to support blood and lymph circulation, the immune system, the movement of Vital Chi along the acupuncture channels, and all the major physiological functions of the skin, as well as to enhance skin beauty and encourage the breakdown of cellulite. Yet, my system is quick, concise and user-friendly. The boxes on pages 15 and 16 are excerpted from my book, Vital Chi Skin-Brushing System. They will provide some insight regarding associated guidelines and technique.
Having studied and practiced classical naturopathy, or Nature-Cure, for 25 years, I have come to appreciate the great value of many of the traditional hydrotherapies and their particular synergy with skin brushing. Hence, I instruct that a skin-brushing session should always be followed by an appropriate hydrotherapy. In addition to the Salt Glow, described here, some other hydrotherapies which may prove beneficial in this regard include alternating hot and cold shower, full cold bath, blitz guss, epsom salt bath and cold ablution.
The Salt Glow is a wonderful circulation-enhancing treatment. In Lectures to Naturopathic Hydrotherapy, Wade Boyle, N.D. and Andre Saine, N.D. list the following indications for salt-glow therapy: “...chronic conditions with inactive skin, including chronic indigestion, kidney disease, diabetes [if there are no skin lesions], sluggish circulation [especially in those who do not react well to hot or cold weather], low vital force, poor resistance, frequent colds, general weakness, neurasthenia, epilepsy, cancer [but not over a palpable tumor], joint problems [especially if followed by oil rub].”
The Salt Glow
1. Wet a good amount of epsom salt (in an unbreakable bowl) with sufficient water to create the consistency of wet snow. Vigorous individuals may wish to opt for moistening the salt with ice water for extra stimulation.
2. Add a few inches of warm water — 98 F to 100 F — to bathtub, then sit in tub and hand-rub or use a washcloth to rub the body thoroughly using this warm water.
3. Stand up in tub (on non-slip mat) and apply moistened salt as follows: Begin with each arm, starting with fingers — rub vigorously until skin turns pink, or to tolerance, whichever occurs first. Then, rub each leg similarly, beginning with toes, working up to hips. Rub salt into the rest of the body in the following order — chest, abdomen, back, hips and buttocks. Follow with a cool shower spray — one to two minutes — being sure to hand-rub the skin throughout. Finish with a vigorous towel-rub by an open window in a private area. Rest for at least 30 minutes to one hour before initiating activity.
Interfacing Aromatherapy With Skin Brushing and Hydrotherapy
I have found that the application of a few drops of the appropriate essential oils can have a profound effect. Bear in mind that the absorption of only a few molecules of an essential oil may be sufficient to elicit both a physiological and emotional response. Homeopathy sets a precedent in this reference; it utilizes medicinal preparations which are essentially matterless. Through serial dilution, an ultramolecular entity is extracted which is an isolate of the original substance’s vital vibratory essence. This non-physical force field is considered to be the active, curative principle contained within this original substance. Biochemic cell salt therapy, a branch of homeopathy, utilizes mineral salts in minute quantities; cell salt tablets contain only a few molecules of the given mineral. In this way, the dose is provided in amounts approximating actual cellular need. Too, microdosing in this manner avoids the side effects associated with macromolecular doses. Similarly, three or four molecules of the essential components of an aroma oil, taken up by the blood, may not only be sufficient, but best suited (in conjunction with skin brushing and hydrotherapy) to elicit a cellular response in a given individual. In fact, for hypersensitive individuals, this may be the most judicious course.
Suggested Aromatherapy Protocol To Enhance The Salt Glow
I learned about using fresh lemon juice as a skin application by studying the writings of Dr. John T. Richter, a popular naturopath who practiced in the early- to mid-20th century. Richter writes in his book, Nature: The Healer: “The morning cold shower or cold water rub-down may be taken without the use of soap, and lemon juice applied over the body with the hands, either before or after washing. The juice will smooth the skin, is a good dirt chaser, disinfectant, and also will act as a mild astringent. Soaps often contain caustics; even those made of vegetable oils have a tendency to dry the skin, but lemon juice has no harmful effects...After shampooing the hair, lemon juice mixed with the last rinsing water will soften both the water and the hair. After the shower or bath, rub your body down with the juice of half a lemon while the skin is still moist. Massage until perfectly dry; otherwise the skin will have a tendency to be somewhat sticky. This massage will dislodge outworn skin. With the slightly astringent effect, you will feel clean and be clean. Only a few minutes are required.”
To create the rub, use the juice from one lemon as your base. Add to your base one to two drops of each oil listed in the box on page 18. For the bath, add one to two drops each of the same oils to the water. Note: As a general rule to avoid potential skin irritation, do not exceed a total of seven drops of essential oils in either the lemon juice rub or bath water.