Skin whitening in China

How skin whitening in China impacts more than just the beauty industry

Skin whitening in China is a prevailing beauty standard which has persisted throughout history. In ancient China, white pale skin was a key differentiator to highlight one’s elite social status. Since Chinese farmers and low-level laborers spent a lot of time on the sun, they had darker complexions. In addition, ancient Chinese literature further emphasized a woman’s attractiveness by describing their skin as akin to ‘snow’, ‘ice’, or ‘jade’. It’s no surprise that this beauty standard has made it into modern Chinese culture and has a major influence on the way beauty products for the skin are not only marketed, but developed.

From celebrity media of singing and dancing pale-faced Chinese idols, to popular skin whitening products in China’s skincare market, to tutorials on skin lightening by local KOLs, white skin is still very much idolised today.  

An official poster depicting the winner of idol show, Youth With You Season 2 skin whitening in China
Image source: Iqiyi. An official poster depicting the winner of idol show, Youth With You Season 2, the image has been enhanced to emphasize the idol’s pale skin, notably the bright cheekbones which are known as “苹果肌” (Apple muscle) in Chinese and represent youth

Sales from skin whitening products in China reached 440 billion yuan in 2019. However, China’s cultural appreciation for white skin affects and influences industries far beyond skincare products. While Chinese skin whitening products may affect skin colour chemically, skin darkening prevention via anti-UV products as well as Chinese photo filter applications to alter skin digitally also follow beauty standard.

Whitening skincare market in China

According to a survey from Japanese skincare firm, Shinseido, the top four concerns of Asian women all relate to skin tone darkening. The top point of issue for Chinese women is yellow, sallow skin. On the men’s side, demand for sunblocks and whitening agents are also rising.

The SK-II Genoptics Aura Essence skin whitening in China
Image source SK-II. The SK-II Genoptics Aura Essence

Among the best-selling skin whitening products in China, P&G’s high-end skincare brand SK-II remain one of the most lauded. According to asiatimes, its classic essence is called ‘miracle water’ by Chinese netizens and its whitening essence is called ‘a little light bulb’. Its whitening essence, the SK-II Genoptics Aura Essence, contains Prunus Extract which tackles skin damage caused by UV rays. Another magical ingredient in the essence is Inositol, a chemical which contributes to cell clarity.

The popular Chinese equivalent for the term ‘skin whitening’ is ‘美白‘ (mei bai), where 美 means ‘beautiful’ and 白 means ‘white’. It is a testament to how Chinese people associate the colour white with beauty.  In addition to ‘美白’ , Skin whitening products in China employ phrases such as ‘雪颜’ (snow face),  ‘去黄’ (remove yellow) and ‘提亮肤色’ (brighten skin colour) to market themselves.

Digital filters to make skin appear whiter

The social aspiration for whiter skin has resulted in a strong demand for digital skin whitening in China: namely, beautifying photo applications. Chinese phone brands and Chinese photo filter applications understand this: Chinese phone brand Huawei has a ‘beauty mode’ built into its camera, a function which includes whitening one’s skin. In 2016, a selfie camera by the name of Casio Exilim TR became the heated focus of many Chinese beauty-chasers. The camera was hailed as ‘zipai shenqi’, a phrase to mean ‘magical weapon for selfies’, allowing the user to customize the lightness of their skin. One user raved: “It’s true you can edit your photos with software, apps etc. But with this camera, no editing is needed. It saves you so much trouble.” Exilim TR entered the market with a humble starting price of  $249 but  rocketed to $800 within six months.

A selfie with and without Meitu skin whitening in China
Image source: Meitu. A selfie with and without Meitu

The king of Chinese photo filter applications is undoubtedly Meitu, boasting a 1.19 billion yuan in 2020.  In addition to basic filters and special effects commonly seen in the West, Meitu makes photoshopping easier for Chinese consumers by tailoring main functions to fit their aesthetics: slimming down faces, enlarging eyes, and, of course, whitening the skin tone. The Chinese photo filter application fuelled the current culture of excessive online beautification which lords over Chinese social media to this day. Other similar Chinese photo filter applications offering similar photo editing services include Pitu and FaceU.

UV protection

In addition to sunscreen, many Chinese like to wear clothing which will be able to protect them from UV exposure. This includes ice silk anti-UV arm sleeves 冰丝防晒袖套 and wide-brimmed sun visors which cover the wearer’s entire face in its shadow – both are normally worn when the wearer is participating in outdoor exercise such as a sport camp or marathon. On a daily basis, Chinese women may choose to carry umbrellas with them outside on a sunny day even when it is not raining – they use the umbrella shield their entire body from UV rays. Anti-UV umbrellas serve especially for this purpose.

Three Chinese women with sunhats and a fourth with an umbrella visiting a Qingdao beach skin whitening in China
Image source: Vogue. Three Chinese women with sunhats and a fourth with an umbrella visiting a Qingdao beach

The push-back against lightening products

In the international scene, skin whitening products have faced backlash across the world amongst ongoing protests for racial equality. In response, several global companies of recent have decided to rebrand or discontinue their products involving skin lightening and making fairer skin. L’Oreal has announced they would be removing words like ‘whitening’, ‘fairness’ and ‘lightening’ from all their skin care products. Unilever has also renamed its skin lightening cream, ‘Fair & Lovely’, to ‘Glow & Lovely’ whilst also removing references to ‘whitening’ and ‘lightening’ on the products.

In some cases the international backlash against colourism in marketing has made it to China. Johnson & Johnson took their response one step further with two of its brands: Neutrogena and Clear & Clear would discontinue their skin whitening lines in Asia and the Middle East. However it still not clear whether Chinese beauty consumers link colourism and skin lightening products or if the ancient trend is here to stay.

Four key takeaways for companies entering the Chinese market

  1. Skin whitening in China is strong and there is continual demand for services and products which prevent skin darkening and lighten skin both online and offline.
  2. Skin whitening products in China aiming to lighten yellow Asian skin should rename and rebrand any controversial labels and vocabulary which may become a source of controversy.
  3. Whitening culture in China has seeped into selfies and social media. Phone brands and apps have capitalized on the whiteness beauty standard with whitening filters. Offering whitening filters is becoming a necessity of any photo-sharing apps and cameras.
  4. From clothes to tents and umbrellas, UV protection is becoming an important aspect of many consumption decisions.

See our report on the male beauty market in China