One of the best aspects of Asian cosmetics is how brands combine modern ingredients and formulation technology with traditional beauty remedies. This holistic approach to skincare delivers targeted active ingredients and nutrient-rich natural compounds to nourish the whole complexion while treating specific skin issues. And since rice is a staple of so many Asian diets, it should come as no surprise that rice has a place in skincare, too. A prominent place.
As with the vast majority of natural and traditional cosmetic ingredients, however, highly credible (large-scale, long-term, non-corporate) studies are thin on the ground. There simply isn’t enough research funding or academic interest to drive extensive research into every possible extract used in skincare, and the competitive nature of the beauty market ensures that the speed of product R&D far outpaces the scientific research.
Good thing I’ve never been a “proven actives only” kind of blogger. If I were, I would have missed out on so many products and ingredients that do wonders for my complexion. Part of the excitement of skincare for me lies in experimenting with different ingredients to see what works on my skin and then adding to the pile of anecdote for those ingredients. Rice extracts are some of the ingredients I’ve used the longest, and they’re some of the ones I like the best. Let’s talk about why.
Rice water: Then and now
The use of rice water as a beauty treatment in Asia goes back hundreds of years at least, with Healthline claiming that “the earliest known use of it was over 1,000 years ago in Japan.”
Made by steeping or boiling the rice, rice water exhibits antioxidant activity comparable to ascorbic acid (vitamin C), with compounds that may inhibit the formation of dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and premature wrinkles due to free radical damage. Rice extracts may also help limit inflammation as well as control the appearance of oil on the surface of skin. Going a step further, fermented rice bran extracts may help to increase collagen synthesis in photodamaged skin, possibly reversing some of the visible effects of sun damage.
Brightening, anti-aging, calming, and oil-balancing? No wonder women have used rice water on their faces for hundreds of years!
You can still use rice water exactly as women have done for centuries, by soaking or boiling your rice and then saving the water for cosmetic purposes. These days, however, we’re not limited to the questionably sanitary and unpreserved byproducts of our home cooking activities. Rice shows up in a plethora of skincare products at prices ranging from budget to bougie, in both fermented and unfermented forms. Rice ferments—generally the byproduct of sake production—are especially prized, since fermentation breaks down the naturally occurring compounds into theoretically more bioavailable form so that skin can make better use of them.
I personally wouldn’t rely on rice extracts (or any other extracts) alone to help achieve my skin goals. While I’m open to natural and less-researched ingredients as supplements in my routine, I do think of them more as supplements to my more heavily researched actives, like tretinoin and chemical exfoliants. As supplements to the hard stuff, however, rice extracts are among my favorite.
Not every rice-based product works out for me, of course. Variations in extract quality and potency, as well as differences in overall formulation, mean that some products shine while others flop. But when a rice product does work for my skin, the effects are striking.
A really good fermented rice essence, for example, gives my skin a noticeable bright, translucent clarity. I also find rice products good for balancing my skin, lightly mattifying while adding softness and hydration. The calming effects of rice extracts also make them an excellent choice for when my skin feels irritable from too many actives.
My rice-based skincare picks
Made famous by the wildly pricey, celebrity-endorsed SK-II Facial Treatment Essence (which did nothing for me), fermented rice essence is the most distinct category of rice-based skincare products. And the only fermented rice essence I love is Naruko’s La Crème Face Renewal Miracle Essence, which I’ve been using regularly since I first reviewed it on my blog in 2016.
Water-light with a faint scent of sake and a massive list of beneficial complementary plant extracts and skin brighteners, the Face Renewal Miracle Essence creates that brightness and clarity that I described above. It sinks in quickly and adds an instant boost of elasticity under the rest of my skincare. And the nice big bottle helps me feel free to splash this on with abandon, which I believe enhances the product’s performance.
In the interest of variety, however, I’ve put my fourth(?) bottle of Face Renewal Miracle Essence aside to try 23.5°N’s Rice Soothing Active+ Essence. With a short and simple ingredients list and a thicker, almost gel-like consistency more akin to a hydrating toner, this is a totally different product from the watery first essences I’m used to. I’ll be giving the Rice Soothing Active+ Essence a full review after I’ve used it for a couple more weeks, but for now, I can say I like it. It delivers plumping hydration and impressive anti-inflammatory properties. I had a run-in with azelaic acid not long ago. The Rice Soothing Active+ Essence rapidly eased the irritation and calmed the redness over night. Feels like a winner to me!
Rice’s firming and elasticity-boosting properties come to the forefront in COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask, which has been a staple in my skincare wardrobe since 2015(!!!). A blandly unscented, medium-weight cream, this sleeping pack works some kind of magic overnight to make my skin incredibly bouncy and resilient the next day. With mild soothing and redness-reducing capabilities, it reliably creates and refreshed and healthy look whenever I use it overnight.
Finally, honorable mention goes out to Skinfood Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask. I just wrote about this gentle scrub in my Glowie Co roundup of the best Korean exfoliators. With soft rice bits in a creamy, moisturizing base, this exfoliator sweeps away flaky dead skin to reveal a softer complexion without irritating or overscrubbing my skin.
I have to confess that I’m actually a terrible Asian, because I don’t like eating rice that much. (What can I say? I don’t really love starchy food in general.) When it comes to skincare, though, I’ll gladly put rice on my face twice a day, every day, for the rest of my life. What about you?