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Trends, Wellness
November 2, 2012 | 0 Comments

White lies: China’s intimate bleaching industry

Whitening, not just a matter of face.

"Whitening, not just a matter of face."

Foreigners bound for China are always warned about the local obsession with face: One’s fortunes are determined by the ability to gain it, maintain it, and never ever lose it. Face has been used to explain China’s attachment to luxury items; now, retailers are trying to extend the metaphor to other parts of the human body. Over the past few years, products promising to whiten or “pinkify” anything from elbows to genitals, have become popular, promoted by aggressive – and sometimes offensive – marketing campaigns. 

Fair skin has long been a status symbol in East and Southeast Asia. Agricultural societies across the region tend to associate tan with manual labor reserved for the lower classes. More than a thousand years ago, East Asian women from well-to-do families used various powders to lighten their features, and shunned outdoor activities. The fact that many of Asia’s cultural, economic, and military elites over the past few centuries have been from the relative north reinforced the association of white and might. And in recent decades, the cultural dominance of Japan and, later, Korea delivered images of pale beauties to all corners of the continent.

Modern consumer culture brought whiteness to the masses, spawning a plethora of popular creams, pills, and treatments. Such offerings are currently most popular in Thailand, the Philipines, and elsewhere in South Asia, but China is catching up quickly. And what began with the face is now spreading to other parts of the body (a selection of Asian whitening ads is available here). The international media was recently abuzz with stories about a new “vaginal whitening wash” launched in Thailand and India. But the product, Lactacyd White Intimate, is owned by France’s Sanofi and is also available in other countries as well. An industry report pegs Asia-Pacific’s whitening products market at USD 2 billion, but we assume it does not include semi-homemade products and unknown brands that are popular in rural areas and online, especially in China.

Thousands of products allow Chinese consumers to whitewash their way up the social ladder. All parts of the body are covered – from knee and inner-elbow bleachers, through nipple lightening serums, to vaginal whitening creams. The most popular whitening cream on Taobao is Lofea’s “Charming Pink Cream” which seems focused mostly on nipples and genitals. About 2,000 units of Lofea’s most popular item are sold on Taobao each month, suggesting overall sales of several tens of thousands of products per month in the same category. This estimate does not include products from mainstream international brands that also cite whitening as a feature of their soaps and body washes but do so less explicitly.

The price range for Chinese intimate whitening products begins at a few dozen RMB and goes up to several thousands. One local brand, Rui Zhi Mei (蕊之美), offers daily treatment packages priced between RMB 400-2,400. The company’s marketing material cites research showing that 99% of Chinese men – and 88% of women – believe that nipples and other private parts should be pink. Rui Zhi Mei also debunks the common perception that marriage is all about love and children, relaying a “true story” of a woman who was deserted by her husband with a young baby after her nipples turned dark. The common Chinese term for “whitening” (美白) also implies virtue, combining the words for beauty and white.

China was late to Asia’s modern whitening craze, but we expect its unique combination of status anxiety and industrious local marketers to prop it to the top of the heap within the next 3-5 years. The People’s Republic may also prove a fertile ground for whitening products aimed specifically at men — matching a pale face with the country’s already popular faux-black comb-overs. It is still early days for China’s whitening industry, but with billions of nipples and private parts still untapped, the future seems perky and bright.

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