Those of us with sensitive skin already know to be wary of trendy ingredients. But there’s one that’s purported to be good specifically for sensitive or inflamed skin: centella asiatica (also referred to as gotu kola), a leafy plant found in parts of China, Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S.
The plant has a long history in traditional medicine, and products containing it have been available internationally for decades. In France, for instance, you might see it sold as Madécassol cream, named for the centella asiatica extract madecassoside.
Korean skin-care products containing centella asiatica are often labeled “cica,” indicating they’re meant to calm irritated skin, such as Neogen Real Cica Pads, $20, Innisfree Bija Cica Balm, $25, and Iope Derma Repair Cica Cream, $32.
Centella asiatica is also the star ingredient in the cult-favorite Cicapair line from Dr. Jart (including my personal go-to, the Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment, $52), as well as La Roche-Posay’s Cicaplast line and Kiehl’s Centella Cica Cream, $43.
So, it’s basically everywhere. But can it really help calm your skin? And is it even safe to regularly use something like this on skin that’s prone to bad reactions? We talked to experts about how much we really know about this fascinating plant—and whether or not it’s really a good idea for those with sensitive skin to use it.
Here’s what the research says.
Many of centella asiatica’s purported effects come down to its potential for calming inflammation, encouraging the production of collagen, acting as an antioxidant, and improving skin hydration. “These properties have all been reported [anecdotally], but when you dig deep into the literature, there’s not a huge amount of data to begin with,” Evan Rieder, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.
And most of the studies we do have on topical applications of centella asiatica are looking at things in a lab setting or with rat and mouse models. “There’s very little in terms of true human data,” Dr. Rieder says.
What we do have is somewhat “intriguing,” though, Rajani Katta, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Houston, Texas who specializes in sensitivity and allergic reactions, tells SELF.
For instance, in a study published in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry earlier this year, researchers found that when they applied madecassoside to human skin cells that had been stimulated with the bacteria often implicated in acne, the madecassoside reduced the amount of inflammation associated with that type of acne. And research in rats has found that centella asiatica can help speed up the wound healing process, particularly the phase in which collagen is needed to close up the wound. In another study, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2017, the researchers found that centella asiatica was helpful at reducing inflammation in a mouse model of eczema (atopic dermatitis).
There is some data in humans, though it’s limited, Dr. Rieder says. In one study, published in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigation Dermatology in 2017, researchers tested out a “fluid” containing hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and centella asiatica extract on 20 women’s forearms over the course of 24 hours. One arm got the fluid while the other forearm got a control cream. The researchers measured the hydration level and the amount of water lost throughout the day. Results showed that the arm that got the centella asiatica fluid showed significantly more hydration and less water loss compared to both the participants’ baseline measurements and the control.
That suggests that the fluid containing centella asiatica was effective at improving skin hydration. But that’s not the only thing that was in the fluid—it also contained hyaluronic acid and glycerin, two ingredients we already know are effective at improving the amount of skin hydration, so it’s not clear how much of those effects the centella asiatica was actually responsible for.
“I think it’s actually encouraging,” Dr. Katta says, “but on the flip side, there just hasn’t been enough research to definitively say that it’s than another sensitive skin moisturizer.”
Considering the potential for centella asiatica to bolster collagen production, it’s not surprising that there has also been some interest in using it to manage signs of aging, such as fine lines and photodamage. In one study, published in 2008 in Experimental Dermatology, researchers had 20 participants with photoaged skin apply a cream containing ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and madecassoside on their face, one arm, and one half of their neck and chest area twice a day. They applied a control cream to the other half of their neck and chest area and the other arm. (They used a separate tube for the face so they didn’t know which cream was in it.)
After a full six months, the researchers saw that participants had significant improvements in wrinkles, firmness, and hydration. But, again, because the cream contained both vitamin C, which we know can have some effects on photoaged skin on its own, in addition to madecassoside, we can’t say for sure if the centella asiatica extract helped very much.
Another small study involving human participants looked at whether or not a cream containing asiaticoside, another centella asiatica extract, could reduce the appearance of fine lines around the eyes. For the study, published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science in 2008, researchers had 27 women apply the asiaticoside cream to one eye and a control cream to the other eye twice a day for 12 weeks. After the treatment period, their results showed that those in asiaticoside group had significantly improved wrinkle depth compared to those in the control group, which suggests that this extract can help reduce wrinkles around the eyes.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the extracts the researchers were testing in all of these studies are not necessarily the same things you’ll find in cica products on the market, which also aren’t necessarily the same thing as the traditional plant. “The commercially available skin-care products use a highly processed extract,” Dr. Katta says, and it’s always hard to compare the results of something like that to those found in the natural herbal product.
And, ultimately, because we don’t have clinical trials for every product on the market, you simply can’t always know what you’re really getting.
Should you try centella asiatica?
As always, whether or not you should try a product depends on your own skin needs and your willingness to accept a little risk. In general, both Dr. Rieder and Dr. Katta say they would recommend people opt for better-studied products aimed to manage dry or sensitive skin, like gentle moisturizers from go-to brands like Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Dove. Additionally, Dr. Katta recommends looking into products containing colloidal oatmeal or aloe to soothe skin, which we know a little more about than centella asiatica.
But if you’re down to experiment, that’s totally fine. Just know that if you do have sensitive skin or a condition like psoriasis, rosacea, or eczema—yes, precisely the people many of these products are aimed at—you’re probably more likely to have a reaction to any skin-care product, even ones that claim to help with sensitive skin. In fact, there are reports of people developing contact dermatitis from using centella asiatica, Dr. Rieder points out. That said, considering the sensitivities in this target population, Dr. Katta says she’s kind of surprised to see so few of these reactions. But, of course, they are still a potential risk.
If you’re interested in trying centella asiatica as a means of calming inflamed or sensitive skin, it may be worth patch testing on your inner arm to see if you have a reaction before trying the product all over your face. Or you can always check in with a dermatologist if you have questions and to get their recommendations for your unique skin concerns.
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