For centuries, many cultures have called upon the fan-shaped leaves of the gotu kola plant, otherwise known as centella asiatica or pennywort, for its healing powers. A member of the parsley family native to the swamps of India, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka, and many parts of South Africa, centella has been used to promote relaxation, improve mental clarity, and treat such diverse issues as asthma and sexually transmitted diseases. It was even dubbed the Fountain of Life in China, after one lucky herbalist had a taste and lived to be 200—or so the legend goes. Although that feat probably won’t be replicated any time soon, that hasn’t stopped spas and skincare companies from incorporating the curative extract into products appearing on treatment menus from Cedars-Sinai to the Four Seasons.
“What’s fascinating about centella asiatica is that it goes back to prehistoric times,” says Sandra Adams, global clinical educator for Innovative Skincare. “Elephants will actually travel many miles to consume the leaves, and animals will rub up against the plants when they’re injured.” And it’s not just wildlife getting in on the act. Thanks to the presence of chemicals called triterpenoids, humans have found gotu kola to be useful for everything from encouraging collagen production and blood flow to reducing anxiety and varicose veins. “Gotu kola has been used for thousands of years to help heal skin conditions like psoriasis as well as wounds and burns, because it fosters antioxidant and collagen activity in troubled areas to speed healing,” says Tata Harper, founder of the eponymous line, Tata Harper Skincare. “Plus, it’s an anti-inflammatory and has been shown to increase the strength of the skin. Because of its propensity for fortifying and toning, “as well as its overall contributions to resilient skin that can better combat the everyday wear-and-tear effects of environmental exposure,” Harper uses gotu kola in several of her products, including the ever-popular Rejuvenating Serum. A highly concentrated anti-ager, the formula counts on 29 high-performance ingredients, including narcissus-bulb extract, Spanish lavender, and, of course, gotu kola to keep skin strong and healthy.
According to Mehmet Oz, M.D., author and host of The Dr. Oz Show, those strengthening properties are also a contributing factor to its success in reducing cellulite. Gotu kola is one of the few herbs that has been found to improve elasticity and thicken the skin, he says, which helps to minimize the appearance of lumps and bumps. Research has even shown a double-digit-percentage increase in collagen synthesis when centella asiatica is used, says Adams, whose company has relied on pharmaceutical-grade gotu kola and its triterpenoid extracts since its inception. Centella is one of the key ingredients in the line’s IS Clinical Body Complex, a nourishing product popular with cancer patients and high-end spa-goers alike, as highlighted in the Celluless Method (starting at $95, 45 minutes) at Townhouse Spa (New York City). “We decided to use centella asiatica because it is known for its skin-firming and collagen-boosting properties,” says owner Jamie Ahn. “It increases skin elasticity and even aids in the lightening of stretch marks.” And her guests have responded accordingly. “The Celluless Method has a loyal following because our guests see results,” she says. “We have a steady client base that comes for the service after a pregnancy or before a photo shoot, a special event, or a vacation.”
At skincare company Sundãri, where products are inspired by and contain natural active ingredients sourced from the time-honored customs of Ayurveda, these plant extracts are chosen as much for their holistic roots as for their results. “In Ayurveda, gotu kola has traditionally been used for its healing properties,” says Rahul Koul, co-CEO of Sundãri. “Studies suggest that topical application of gotu kola strengthens the skin, boosts antioxidants in wounds, and invigorates the blood supply.” In the line’s Gotu Kola and Walnut Body Exfoliator, centella asiatica’s triterpenoid content promotes fibroblastic activity to firm and lift tired skin and stimulate the circulatory system, especially the blood vessels of the skin and the mucous membranes, to revitalize the nerves, the brain, and the complexion. The scrub is used for a full-body exfoliation in the Ayurvedic Firming Envelopment ($260, 90 minutes), a treatment available upon request for those in the know at The Spa at The Setai (Miami Beach, FL). “We receive many guests looking for a tightening and firming effect, and the gotu kola certainly aids in this area,” says spa director Laura De La Rosa.
For Noella Gabriel, director of product and treatment development at Elemis, gotu kola’s cosmetic assets are a nice side effect, but its extraordinary healing virtues are the main selling point. “Centella asiatica has anti-inflammatory properties and was traditionally used to relieve irritation, scratches, stings, and bites,” says Gabriel, who notes that gotu kola plays a prominent role in the company’s top-selling S.O.S. Emergency Cream. A calming moisturizer for those with stressed, hormonal, or sensitive skin, the cream pairs gotu kola with meadowsweet to fight inflammation; amino acids to naturally moisturize and regenerate; and lavender, myrrh, and willow to soothe, protect, and help restore the skin’s natural balance. At Elemis Day-Spa (London), the cream features in the regulating and rebalancing S.O.S. Purifying Facial ($155, 75 minutes), a treatment that helps to absorb sebum and calm irritation. “With increased stress, pollutants, use of air conditioning and heating, and poor diets, more and more clients are turning to this unique formulation for instant comfort and skin regeneration,” she says.
The new Onda Spa at Andaz Peninsula Papagayo (Guanacaste, Costa Rica) also relies heavily on the bio-advantages of gotu kola. Its Relieve Body Aloe Vera & Tropical Fruits Wrap ($160, 60 minutes) distributes the extract through a body balm and an organic rice cream, both from Biosfera. “We chose gotu kola because of the multiple health benefits it provides,” says Maria Laura Quesada Castro, Biosfera’s founder. Of all of its hand-formulated, small-batch products made with organic ingredients from local Costa Rican farmers, Castro says that those with centella are among the most requested by phytocosmetic therapists. “Gotu kola has been proven to prevent vicious scars, or keloids, after injuries and surgeries, as well as to minimize existing keloid scars,” she says. “It has also been proven effective in the healing of cuts and burns and in skin-restructuring treatments.” Naturally healing body treatments such as this one are beloved by the spa’s clients, says Onda Spa manager Patricia Fuertes Bolaños.
According to Adams, this dovetails neatly with what today’s consumer wants. “Key research tells us that clients are looking for more natural-based products with fewer chemicals,” she says. “They also want something instantly gratifying that multitasks and offers better results with fewer steps.” Instead of reinventing the wheel, look to the knowledge of the ancients for answers. Gotu kola might not allow your guests to live as long as Methuselah, but it’s sure to send them on their way with healthier skin.—Maya Stanton