Cica. Tiger grass. Indian pennywort. Gotu kola. Brahmi.
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Centella Asiatica goes by many names and has many uses. A member of the parsley family, Centella Asiatica is common in many cuisines and has been used in both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. While it’s been a common ingredient in skin care products for a long time, in the past few years, it’s really taken off.
While the name may be new to you, the hype around this little plant isn’t. In China, Centella Asiatica is known as “The Miracle Elixir of Life.” But can this herb really be worthy of such high praise? What does the science say?
We talked to dermatology physician assistant Samantha Stein, PA-C, about the skin care benefits Centella Asiatica offers and why it’s suddenly become such a hot topic on social media.
What is Centella Asiatica?
Centella Asiatica has been a staple of both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for millennia. The plant with lily pad-esque leaves supposedly goes by the nickname “Tiger Grass” because tigers roll in it when they’re injured. (We don’t recommend going out into the jungle to test that claim.)
You can find the herb growing wild in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. It also dots the landscapes of many Pacific islands. The plant is edible and — in addition to having many culinary uses — it’s taken by mouth to treat a wide range of medical conditions. In fact, it’s also sometimes called the “herb of longevity.”
While Centella Asiatica has been in the West for centuries, it’s usually played a supportive role in skin and wound care products. But all of a sudden, it’s become the star of the show.
But Centella Asiatica has grown in popularity thanks to the meteoric rise of South Korean skin care products, commonly known as “K-beauty.” Generally speaking, K-beauty products are formulated to be gentle, in part because air pollution throughout the country can leave skin extra sensitive. Centella Asiatica is a staple ingredient in many K-beauty products, with many manufacturers creating dedicated product lines using several (or, in some cases, all) of Centella Asiatica’s four active compounds:
- Asiatic acid.
- Madecassic acid.
So, what is it about Centella Asiatica that has skin care influencers across social media platforms gushing? And are any of the benefits supported by scientific evidence?
The benefits of Centella Asiatica in skin care
Centella Asiatica has thousands of years of anecdotal evidence supporting its use. But what about the science? There aren’t as many studies out there as you might expect, though interest has gone up in the past few years. Here are the benefits of Centella Asiatica as we understand them today:
Moisturizes dry, sensitive eczema prone skin
One of the reasons Centella Asiatica features so prominently in skin care products is that it does a great job keeping skin hydrated. Stein explains that it also helps your skin barrier retain moisture and reduces redness and inflammation. That’s especially important for people with conditions like eczema or rosacea, which can dry out and sensitize your skin.
She also recommends using Centella Asiatica during times of the year when the temperature varies a lot, as that can stress even the hardiest of skin barriers.
Helps with burn and wound healing
Remember the tale about tigers rolling in Centella Asiatica when they’re injured? The science suggests that we might be wise to follow suit. Stein says that Centella Asiatica is rich in antioxidants.
“We need antioxidants to help fight off free radicals, which are little molecules that eat up the good parts of our defense system, damaging DNA and the skin barrier,” she explains. “Centella increases antioxidant levels to help fight off those free radicals. So, in conjunction with other products like petrolatum jelly, it may help heal burns and wounds.”
Inflammation is an important part of the healing process for wounds of any kind. But like party guests, it should be there for a good time, not a long time. A continual immune response can make things worse.
“Acne is inflammatory. Eczema is inflammatory. A lot of skin conditions are inflammatory in nature,” Stein adds. “Using an active ingredient like Centella can help reduce inflammation when used in conjunction with other medications or over-the-counter products.”
Slows signs of aging
While there’s some evidence to suggest Centella Asiatica may reduce signs of photoaging, as well as the appearance of scars and cellulite, there’s more research needed to say something definitive. What we can say for sure:
- Centella Asiatica contains phytochemicals that are important for reducing oxidative stress on the cells that make up our connective tissue.
- The four active compounds in Centella Asiatica — asiaticoside, asiatic acid, madecassic acid and madecassoside — stimulate collagen production.
Stein adds. “Centella can make your skin appear more hydrated, plumper and healthier,” all of which can help you look younger.
How to use Centella Asiatica in your daily routine
Let’s say you’re sold on Centella Asiatica. How exactly are you supposed to integrate it into your skin care rotation? There are so many different preparations out there, from toners and ampoules to sheet masks and sunscreens. We asked Stein how you can get the most Centella Asiatica bang for your buck.
Her answer: “Every ingredient is a little bit different. But to see the benefits of something like Centella Asiatica — that’s helping your skin and is nonirritating — I think it’s best to use products that stay on your face for longer periods of time, like creams, serums and lotions.”
It’s also worth noting that you can find Centella Asiatica in products designed to target specific skin care concerns, from spot treatments for acne, to scar recovery and stretch mark therapy.
Risks and side effects of Centella Asiatica
Centella Asiatica is a popular ingredient in skin care products because it’s safe for most people to use. “The side effect profile is pretty minimal, since it helps to hydrate the skin and increase the strength and moisture capability of the skin barrier,” Stein explains. In fact, she notes that it’s common to add Centella Asiatica to products with harsher actives because it reduces the risk of side effects.
That still doesn’t make it the ideal ingredient for everyone.
For starters, while it’s rare, you can be allergic to Centella Asiatica. The most common reaction is a burning sensation or contact dermatitis. That’s why, as with any other skin care ingredient, it’s important to do a spot test on your inner arm and wait at least 24 hours to see if your skin reacts poorly. The last thing you want to do is apply a Centella Asiatica sleeping mask and wake up to a rash!
“Centella Asiatica is very versatile,” Stein states. “It’s used for so many different things. But everyone’s skin is so different, so unique. So, I always tell people to talk to their healthcare provider first.”
You should also ask your dermatology healthcare provider before using Centella Asiatica if you’re:
- Under 18 years of age.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Have a history of liver problems like hepatitis.
- Have a history of skin cancer.
In life, too much of a good thing is frequently bad. Centella Asiatica is no exception to that rule. It’d be hard to overdo it with skin care products alone — you’d probably have to be consuming Centella Asiatica orally or via injection. But it’s still important to note that, in large quantities, Centella Asiatica can cause the following symptoms:
- Gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
Eye of the tiger
With its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties, Centella Asiatica is already a staple ingredient in Korean skin care products, and a growing skin care trend in the U.S. While the science is still fairly preliminary, dermatologists appreciate Centella Asiatica because it’s safe for dry, damaged and sensitive skin, with few side effects.
But as with any skin care ingredient, it’s best to speak to a dermatologist before making any significant adjustments to your skin care routine. Also be sure to patch-test any product containing Centella Asiatica (which might be labeled as cica, tiger grass or gotu kola) before using it on your face.