LONDON — Major beauty brands are changing how they describe whitening and lightening skin-care products, but is that what the consumer wants in China, the category’s largest Asian market?
“I will still buy ‘whitening’ or ‘brightening’ products because I prefer looking fairer and I don’t like the way I look when I am tanned. It has nothing to do with me wanting to assimilate to the Western ideal of beauty, wealth and social status, it’s just my personal preference,” said Fiona Liu, a product designer in Shanghai. She is also an amateur beauty vlogger who spends a good amount of her salary on skin-care products.
“Reading about what brands are doing to not seem racist makes me want to roll my eyes. While I sympathize with women in South Asia and Africa, or women from minority backgrounds in Europe and North America using toxic chemicals for extreme skin bleaching to fit into the unrealistic beauty standard, the Chinese beauty standard is very achievable. Most of the Chinese people are naturally born with fair skin,” she continued. “With the right amount of sunscreen, hydration and skin-care products, you can easily sustain that.”
China is the second-largest market for skin-whitening products after the U.S. and is projected to reach an estimated size of $2.5 billion by 2027, with a compound annual growth rate of 8 percent, according to Global Industry Analysts.
Valerie Zhang, beauty director at Vogue China, thinks whitening products’ dominance in China is unlikely to change, ever.
“Due to the racial equality movement, the word ‘whitening’ has become a taboo in the West. But for the Chinese market, the situation is quite different. Talking about whitening your skin in China is just a demand to make the skin as a whole more glowy, translucent and spotless, without involving too many social and historic factors. From my observation, brands have not made obvious changes with regard to their promotion wording in China, and it now has passed the promotion period. So we will have to wait and see what change will be made in the future,” said Zhang.
Brands usually heavily promote whitening products in China in March and April. There is an old saying in Chinese: “A white complexion is powerful enough to hide seven faults,” and that has become the gold standard of beauty since ancient times. Many brands introduce Asia-only products to cater to the strong demand.
While the word whitening is not a taboo, some have been adjusting terms due to updates in regulations. Advertising Law of the People’s Republic of China now rules that skin-care product labeling cannot include any suggestive description or claim to have medical effects, and the new Cosmetics Supervision and Administration Regulation, effective from 2021, will further punish mislabeling and tighten new ingredients approval on whitening products.
It’s generally agreed that the all-time whitening bestsellers in China are Procter & Gamble’s SK-II Genoptics Aura Essence and Genoptics Spot Essence, and Olay’s “little white bottles,” ProX Correctiv-White Spot Fading Essence, and White Radiance Light-Perfecting Essence.
Chinese brands are catching up in this category. Brands like HomeFacialPro, Proya and Jala Group’s Chando, which focus on emphasizing effective and less harmful whitening ingredients, such as niacinamide, vitamin C, kojic acid and arbutin, also manage to find success amid stiff competition.
Christopher Bu, celebrity makeup artist and stylist who has a strong tie with Chinese celebrities like Fan Bingbing and Zhang Yuqi, said HomeFacialPro’s Three Percent Niacinamide Essence has capitalized on the livestreaming trend in China amid the coronavirus lockdown to generate sizable online buzz.
Bu added that brands shouldn’t rush their decision to remove whitening labels just to be politically correct and let the Chinese consumers feel they become the casualty because of this.
Andy Koh, a makeup legend with decades of experience in the Chinese beauty industry, agrees with Bu. “There are so many misconceptions around the whitening products. They are not trying to turn a Black or Asian person into a white person. What most whitening products are doing is to override the damage caused by ultraviolet light and internal health reasons, to recover the skin to its natural and healthy state, and prevent the formation of unnecessary melanin,” he said.
Mia Zhang, editor in chief of Meiya, a Chinese beauty social commerce platform with 20 million active users, observes there are trends within the whitening category that help to even skin tone, antioxidation and antiwrinkle on top of achieving a fairer skin in China.
“The idea of Asians all wanting to have fairer skins is a bit dated. In recent years, beauty brands no longer bluntly say this product will whiten your skin. Instead, they are using more technical terms and offering more targeted solutions. I think if a brand has to deliver a universal message across all markets, this is the way to go. They can use terms like ‘glowy’ ‘high shine,’ ‘soften dark spots’ and ‘lift up skin tones,’ etc.,” she said.
Still, nothing will stop Chinese beauty consumers from finding ways beyond skin-care products to look a shade lighter, even if the motive behind it is deeply rooted in uncorrectable colorism.
“Our users love to discuss what color of clothes will make them look whiter and which shade of lipstick will complement their fair skin more,” Zhang said.
Beauty influencer Scarlett Wei, who has more than one million followers on Xiaohongshu, also believes it’s unnecessary for brands to remove these words in China for now.
“Skin-whitening is still a hot topic in first-tier cities. With more discussions around skin care than ever on social media and the advancement of aesthetic medicine, Chinese consumers know where the limit is with whitening skin-care products. They are more willing to go through medical procedures to achieve an instant and more reliable effect,” Wei said.
And even if Western beauty brands remove whitening products from the shop floor worldwide, the majority of Chinese consumers are unlikely to resonate with this decision and their Chinese and other Asian competitors will just gratefully take over the market share from there.
That said, is there room for a more diverse beauty standard in China? Makeup artist and beauty influencer Melilim Fu believes so. She observes that there is indeed a rising number of consumers who are beginning to embrace their natural skin tone, and even willing to experiment with tanning products.
“I personally believe one’s beauty should not come from just one shade of skin tone,” she said. “But the Chinese beauty market as a whole is unlikely to change anytime soon.”