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Digital Plastic Surgery: Inside China’s Beauty App Craze

Popular apps give users the ability to undergo face and body warping procedures, and sometimes the real offline thing.

HONG KONG — Instagram can massage bad lighting, Snapchat can adorn its users with flower crowns, and last year’s breakout photo app, Prism, can transform mundane, everyday snapshots into Renaissance paintings.

But in China, apps go beyond that — with the capability to give people full-body makeovers or connect users to plastic surgeons with a few swipes of a button.

This kind of enhancement — digital or physical — is part of the 222.2 billion renminbi, or $32.7 billion at current exchange, Chinese beauty market, estimates Mintel. What’s more, China’s interest in beauty still has a lot of maturing to do, with the market forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.1 percent through to 2021.

Here, a list of the most innovative beauty apps in China:


Pitu makes it easy to alter facial features or add a full face of digital makeup.
Pitu makes it easy to alter facial features or add a full face of digital makeup.

Its competitor Meitu was the first to make international audiences sit up and take notice of the Chinese beauty app craze but when comparing single apps, Pitu’s digital retouching options are so advanced and comprehensive, it’s akin to virtual plastic surgery. With a few clicks, users can tint their hair, add lip color, create eyelashes and eyeliner, alter brows or even the position of lips or the entire shape of their face. The facial features-tweaking is something Meitu has incorporated now too but Pitu still has an arsenal of frames and filters, a cutout poster-feature, and cosplay-like character transformations — everything from an elfin princess to an ancient Chinese warrior to a vampire. It’s not just limited to phones either: PC users can download a desktop version of the photo-editing software.

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Meitu's extend function which can help the user elongate their legs for a more svelte figure.
Meitu’s extend function which can help the user elongate their legs for a more svelte figure.

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Started in 2008 by Cai Wensheng, this Xiamen-based company landed the global spotlight when it listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in December. The technology firm in aggregate has over a billion downloads across its series of 13 photo editing apps — aside from its namesake original app, its portfolio includes SelfieCity, AirBrush and MakeupPlus. Although all Meitu’s apps offer digital retouching and filters of some sort, MakeupPlus is the most similar to Pitu in the way it offers virtual cosmetics.

There are some differences. MakeupPlus has more template beauty looks, and is based more around celebrities such as old school Hollywood royalty like Audrey Hepburn to K-pop star G Dragon. It also includes makeup looks for men.

Meitu is in the midst of a global expansion; the company says it has more than 430 million overseas users, and it has established local teams in India, Japan, the U.S., and Singapore to launch localized apps. The company is also in the hardware game, producing its own line of smartphones.


Users can discover makeup tutorials and tips and proceed directly to purchasing the products.
Users can discover makeup tutorials and tips and proceed directly to purchasing the products.

This app is the destination for Chinese audiences to learn the ropes to skin care and makeup. Woshidameiren (“I am a great beauty”) is best known for its live-stream tutorials where people discover makeup looks and tricks. Users can follow their favorite beauty vlogger and then directly buy products on the marketplace, sometimes even in real-time. The app’s live-streams are highly produced and it’s boosted affiliation with the television show “Queen,” which airs on provincial Hunan TV.


Facial recognizing technology lets users submit their photo to Gengmei and the app will suggest procedures.
Facial recognition technology lets users submit their photo to Gengmei, which will suggest procedures.

Launched in 2013 by founder Liu Di, Gengmei is a plastic surgery-focused app. Its name translates to “more beautiful” and its over 15 million users share their experiences of cosmetic work on the platform — and, unlike in the West, most don’t bother to hide their faces. Similar to in the U.S., doctors respond and advise prospective patients but Gengmei is much broader, functioning as a one-stop online marketplace too. Users can book laser resurfacing or a nose job in a matter of minutes. There are filters to search based on price, for instance; proximity; who has the most number of reviews, and more. The providers are advertised across the country and abroad for popular destinations such as Thailand or South Korea. Travel insurance for a plastic surgery trip can also be booked on the app.

Along with an encyclopedia of the many various cosmetic procedures available, Gengmei also has a feature in which users upload a photo of themselves and the app, using face-recognition technology, will provide suggestions on what procedures a person might be a good candidate for.

In April 2016, the platform had five million registered users, with more than 3,000 doctors offering their services. Last August, the company closed a Series C funding reportedly worth 345 million renminbi, or $50.7 million, from Suning, Tencent and Fosun Pharma. Other prominent venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital and Vivo have also backed the concept.