In her twenties, Vicky Tsai was successfully scaling the corporate ladder in New York working for the likes of Merrill Lynch and Starbucks, but her skin was unhappy. Blistering and scaling (“even my eyelids") it was not a pretty sight. “I had acute dermatitis for three years and was on antibiotics and steroids,” she tells me over Zoom from the US.
For years, she thought that using too many products was the source of her woes, but on reflection, she suspects that stress played a part too. Burned out, pregnant and close to the tragic events of 911 (“I was at Ground Zero”, she says, preferring not to elaborate) she quit her job. “I woke up one day and said, ‘I choose happiness'”. And the millions of women who love Tatcha, the cult Japanese-inspired skincare brand she went on to found, and the thousands of girls that Tatcha has helped put through education, are so glad she did.
The name Tatcha“sounds like an exhale but translates loosely as the art of a single standing flower,” says Vicky. It’s grown to be the number one best-selling skincare brand in Sephora stores across the US and the whipped Dewy Skin Cream was the number two best-selling moisturiser there in 2021. After 12 years of being the brand that British beauty aficionados rammed their cases with on trips to Hong Kong, Canada or America, Tatcha is finally coming to the UK. It launches at tatcha.co.uk on 4 May and Space NK on 9 June. The products are all rooted in the time-honoured pre-petrochemical beauty rituals and superfood ingredients of the country. If you love a natural-looking, hydrated healthy glow and have four minutes to spare for a daily skincare ritual, this is for you.
Although Vicky is Korean by heritage and American by birth, it was Japan that caught her imagination when she went travelling "to find myself" after quitting her job.
On that first visit to Japan, Vicky was still unable to put anything on her sensitised face other than Aquaphor or Vaseline. “I always looked greasy,” she remembers. A friend there tipped her off about blotting papers used by Geisha. (By the way, Geisha doesn’t mean concubine as one popular ‘memoir’ would have it, but refers to women who study the Japanese arts, says Vicky). This paper was used to protect gold leaf during the traditional hammering process but was ‘upcycled’ by Geisha who used it as face blotters, with the added skincare benefit of being impregnated with anti-inflammatory gold. Eagle-eyed beauty junkies may remember Tatcha Aburatorigami Japanese Beauty Papers, which for years were the only Tatcha product you could buy in the UK at from Space NK. Happily, they will be making a comeback as part of the Tatcha UK launch.
Vicky made it her mission to find out more about how Geisha maintained such beautiful skin beneath their heavy makeup. Vicky tells me that their aesthetic may seem extreme by Western standards but is in fact intended to be viewed by candlelight. She tracked one down, which was not easy she says. “In the 1800s there were 10,000, Geisha, now there are only a couple of hundred.” Incidentally, she now has one on the Tatcha team. She showed Vicky the powders and waxes she would buy at apothecaries and how she made them into essences and cleansers to remove her heavy performance makeup and soften her bare skin. Vicky also came across an 1813 Japanese ‘beauty bible’ in which recipes and rituals were documented. It turns out that we’ve been trying to perfect the cat-eye flick for hundreds of years, she says.
Three ingredients came up time and again: rice, green tea and seaweed. They proved to be as good for the skin as they were for the diet (the Japanese live about ten years longer than us Westerners, says Vicky). When it comes to skincare, these ingredients are brimming with superpowers – being ninjas at holding on to water, rich in antioxidants as well as naturally exfoliating, brightening and softening the skin. After eight weeks on the simple but superfood-rich Geisha skincare regime, Vicky’s skin had cleared. “It not only healed my skin, but it healed my soul,” she says.
This superfood trio, which Vicky calls “sushi for the skin” is now the proprietary blend in Tatcha’s multi-award-winning lineup which counts celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Kim Kardashian and Meghan Markle among its devotees. The Duchess of Sussex owes her flawless complexion to the rice powder cleanser “That’s her favourite,” Vicky told the Sephora Youtube channel.
Looking at Vicky’s 40-something makeup-free skin, I definitely want what she is having. She has a soft youthful radiance that makes her utterly compelling. Interestingly, she tells me that as Geisha become older they wear less makeup, because being older and wiser is deemed to be even more beautiful.
“[Beauty] is not something that gets lost as you grow older,” she told her Sephoria audience. “Your mind is more beautiful, your heart is more beautiful. And people remember you as beautiful based on how you make them feel, not how you look. Everybody says that their mother is beautiful…You remember her as beautiful because she made you feel loved. And that's what beauty for us is really about.
The products are designed to be used in quick rituals – three steps in the morning, and four at night. Let’s take a closer look.
What are the active ingredients in Tatcha?
If Tatcha all sounds rather homespun, don’t be fooled. Yes, it stems from the days before petrochemicals (tick) and is all sourced from high-quality producers in Japan with traceability of raw ingredients, but there’s science behind it too. Products are developed over years by scientists at the Tatcha R&D Institute in Tokyo to be effective yet gentle.
Green tea, rice and red algae grown in rich soil and waters in specific regions of Japan are double fermented to make the brand’s own Hadasei-3 complex which has essential amino acids, antioxidants and gentle AHAs such as lactic acid. “We found that when you double ferment these three things from these three regions, there are over 250 actives,” says Vicky
There’s silk extract, a moisture-binding ingredient that helps smooth and plump the appearance of dry, fine lines and which is at the heart of the moisturisers. Japanese rice powder, a physical exfoliant with naturally moisturising properties features in the powder cleansers (if you know Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant think of it as a creamier version of this. BTW Dermalogica’s founder Jane Wurwand also discovered rice powder exfoliants in Japan during an onsen bath ritual). The oil cleanser is rich in Japanese camellia oil (aka tsubaki oil) which has oleic acid as well as vitamins A, B, and E.
I’m new to Tatcha. Where should I start?
There are three ranges for oily, combination and dry skin as well as targeted serums such as Violet-C Brightening Serum with 15 per cent vitamin C (although you won’t find retinol) mists and masks.
I was given the four-step Classic Ritual to try, which gives a flavour of what Tatcha is about. It’s a simple double cleanse, hydrate and moisturise regime of Camellia Cleansing Oil, £45 The Rice Polish: Classic, £60, The Essence, £95 The Silk Cream, £115. You do it twice daily (minus the powder exfoliator in the morning), it takes less than four minutes and is suitable for pretty much everyone. It paired well with my existing active serums, which I slotted in after The Essence. And boy did it leave my face touchably soft and glowing.
I particularly loved The Essence. Japanese women use an essence more than a moisturiser, says Vicky. The effect on your skin is like wetting a sponge. It helps carry your subsequent skincare deeper. In a clinical study of 30 women, all of them showed an improvement in the look of fine lines. If you have dry or mature skin like me, it's a struggle to keep in the hydration and The Essence really did quench deep down. A slightly richer cream on top would suit me better, so I'm looking forward to trying the Tatcha Ageless range.
The verdict: Tatcha is a total treat for the skin and the senses. The four-minute Classic Ritual was such an unexpected pleasure. The experience feels richer knowing Vicky’s journey and Tatcha’s time-honoured roots. The brand doesn’t think of itself as a skincare company, says Vicky, “We think of ourselves as a company that exists to take care of you through your skin.”
What else should skincare be other than self-care. Looking after yourself makes it easier to care for others. This, Tatcha has got covered too. If your ritual allows you a spare minute, have a look at the Tatcha Education Fund . It has enabled six-and-a-half million days of school for girls around the world and bought 70,000 books – simply through people like us investing in our skin.
Tatcha launches in the UK on 4 May and at the House of Tatcha x Space NK pop-up store 26 May 2022 and Space NK stores on 9 June 2022.