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Cica cream: why the latest K-beauty trend is a balm for sensitive skin

October 22nd 2020 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment


Made from ancient medicinal plant centella asiatica, they promise to treat everything from psoriasis to scarring to cellulite and significantly improve skin’s hydration. Here’s why cica creams are causing such a stir, and where to find one

Given the sheer volume of “skinnovations” flying out of South Korea (K-beauty is said to be seven years ahead of the Western market in terms of research and development), it’s easy to dismiss many of the essences, slimes and sheet masks that come our way from the East as gimmicks, but there’s one fast growing skincare category that has impressive heritage and clinical results behind it: the cica cream.

So called on account of its primary ingredient, the medicinal herb centella asiatica, and also thought to relate to the Latin for scar (cicatrix), a cica cream isn’t technically a new product by any means, despite the fact that both Asian and Western markets are seeing a cica skincare boom. Centella asiatica has been doing the rounds all over the world for centuries, and while the herbal extract is well known in Asia, it’s also an undercover hero healer in other parts of the world too. Known as gotu kola in Chinese medicine, pennywort here in the UK and mandukaparni or jalbrahmi in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, centella asiatica has a lot to give for a little leaf. Here’s why it’s such a mighty skincare ingredient, and why a cica cream deserves a spot on your bathroom shelf (we’ve got a neat edit because we like to come prepared).

What is a cica cream?

A cream loaded with good old centella asiatica, an ingredient that Paula’s Choice Skincare founder and all round skincare oracle Paula Begoun rates extremely highly:

“Centella asiatica is an antioxidant-rich extract that may be listed on labels as asiatic acid, hydrocotyl or gotu kola. It is a source of amino acids and has soothing properties. Concentrations of 5 per cent show notable improvement in the skin’s moisture content.”

Centella asiatica also boasts high levels of essential fatty acids, which help to strengthen skin, boost hydration and protect skin from environmental damage, and research shows that it’s one of relatively few herbal extracts that is actually absorbed into skin and synthesised so it can be used efficiently by the body. Given their antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, pro-healing and scar inhibiting potential, cica creams are often found in medicinal aisles of chemists and pharmacies, but they’re infiltrating everything from serums to toners too (more on that to come).

What is a cica cream good for?

Centella asiatica has been used to treat everything from leprosy to anxiety to diarrhea throughout history, but in pure skincare terms it’s renowned for its calming, soothing and moisturising effects, hence why cica creams are predominately marketed at sensitive, inflamed skin, or skin conditions such and psoriasis, eczema and dermatitis, and also as an ointment for the treatment of burns.

Studies strongly support the use of centella asiatica to address delicate, compromised skin- from speeding up skin cell synthesis and collagen production to facilitate faster healing from damage to slowing down scar formation and increasing circulation so that skin benefits from vitamins, nutrients and all the good stuff you apply, the herb has a seriously could rep in the skincare community. In addition, research points to its ability to reduce hyperpigmentation, prevent premature photoageing and even keep cellulite at bay, which proves that if there were ever a holy grail herb, it could well be this, although let’s be clear that there’s no “cure” for cellulite- those dimples often come with the territory of being a woman, as much as that sucks. In terms of calming sensitivity, the anti-inflammatory and barrier enhancing benefits are real, but check the ingredients list of any cica cream for any rogue irritant ingredients which could detract from centella asiatica’s healing properties. Also, in the same vein as eating a balanced, varied diet for optimum health, you need more than one beneficial skincare ingredient to maintain great skin (here’s a starter for ten in the brilliant skin-gredient department).

Why am I only just hearing about cica creams?

They’ve been on the market for a while, but have particularly grown in popularity thanks to increased demand for soothing skincare aimed at sensitive skin in the Asian market especially, as Mintel Global Beauty Analyst Jane Jang explains:

“Cica creams have become the hero product for new skincare launches claiming safety and gentleness. The South Korean market is currently flooded with cica cream launches that capitalise on consumers’ familiarity with the main ingredient centella asiatica, known as a traditional herbal ointment.

“The word cica was inspired by Western dermocosmetic soothing creams, which feature this word to signify gentle products with scar-healing properties. The same dermocosmetic feel is conveyed by the packaging of South Korean cica creams, which often resemble pharmaceutical ointments. Integrating derma-science and naturals is a winning solution for consumers who increasingly need solutions for their sensitive skin and want to be assured of safety and efficacy.”

There’s also a suggestion that we’re demanding more anti-inflammatory, reparative skincare than ever due to the sensitising effects of pollution, disrupted circadian rhythms and to offset dryness and flakiness caused by potent skincare treatments such as retinol. A basic cica cream isn’t you’re only option either- Jane highlights that cica comes in many guises:

“The next generation of cica creams will be innovative in texture and format. Brands will quickly move from creams to serums, toners and facial masks, while textures will become lightweight and watery. Moreover, the cica concept is highly compatible with complexion-aiding products such as cushion compacts and foundations.

“Brands are also trying to differentiate their cica creams by adding supporting ingredients such as probiotics.”

It seems a cica revolution is upon us- here are six cicas to consider for now…

Your Cica Shopping List

The K-beauty one


Dr Jart’s Cicapair™ range includes a rich, hydrating Tiger Grass Cream, £30, (tiger grass is yet another term for centella asiatica), redness reducing Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment with SPF 30, from £12, and a lighter, gel textured Tiger Grass Repair Serum, £27, to cool and calm irritated, inflamed skin and make it feel juicy and human again (I recently drained my vial of this). Basically, it comforts reactive skin from every angle.

Buy online from £12

The French pharmacy one


Bioderma Cicabio Soothing Repairing Cream, £4.80, for 40ml, is a basic, fragrance-free barrier booster that instantly soothes sore skin and helps to protect it from further damage. It’s fairly thick, so takes chapped skin to task but might prove troublesome if you’re spot prone. Keep it in the cupboard for dry, flaky, itchy and scratchy episodes.

Buy online

The rich one


L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Cica Cream, £7.15 for 40ml, is a buttery daily moisturiser that plumps up dry and dehydrated skin and helps to kick collagen synthesis up the bum to keep early signs of ageing at bay. It’s not groundbreaking in terms of skincare tech, but if you need a hit of alleviating moisture, it’s a goer.

Buy online

The tinted one


Erborian CC Crème SPF 25, £39 for 45ml, is infused with centella asiatica and acts as a radiance boosting halfway house between a primer, moisturiser, sunscreen and general illuminator. Hailing from the labs of a French Korean brand, it’s a consistent Space NK sellout, although that shade options leave a lot to be desired.

Buy online

The lip one


If I had a pound for every beauty industry insider that’s recommended La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume Lèvres, £4.66 for 7.5ml, I’d be cruising around the Caribbean right now. Soothing, smoothing and fragrance-free, it’s an SOS ointment that helps to address everything from cuts to dryness and flaking. It works a treat on cracked heels and knuckles too.

Buy online

The overnight one


Centella asiatica teams up with hydrating resurrection plant, bilberry and wild plum to calm and soothe in Liz Earle's Cica Restore Skin Paste, £29. It comes out of the tube in a thick cream texture and works overnight to boost the skin's moisture barrier and improve the tone and texture of the skin. Reviewers say they wake up with plumper skin and significantly less redness too.

Buy it now

The healing one


We know cica is good for healing and Decleor's Cica-Botanic Balm, £26.25, is certainly living up to that reputation, with people singing its praises for soothing burns and calming irritated, red skin. Centella asiatica takes on the job of reducing any irritation, while eucalyptus is responsible for healing and rosemary hydrates. It's bright orange when it comes out of the pot but the bright hue does fade when applied.

Buy it now

The Boots one


Another overnight treatment, No7's Laboratories Cica-Rescue Skin Paste, £18, should be used at bedtime two or three times a week as the final step in your skincare regime to calm the skin, with bisabolol in the mix to soothe the skin. People using strong topical acne treatments recommend this to hydrate dry skin – we suggest applying an hour or so before bed though; it's quite thick and could end up with a lot being left on your pillow if you don't leave time for it to sink in.

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