Skin-whitening products have been popular in East Asia since ancient times, where lighter skin was seen as a privilege of those who could afford not to be exposed to sun as they did not have to work in the fields. Even today, skin lightening / whitening benefits are generally prioritised more by skincare shoppers in the East, versus those in Western markets – according to Datamonitor’s Consumer Survey conducted in 2013 across 24 markets with over 25,000 consumers around the world, 50% of consumers in Asia regarded ‘skin lightening/brightening benefits’ to be a ‘high priority/essential’ feature of skincare products, compared to less than a quarter of consumers in Western Europe and North America.
Urbanisation in developing countries has also exposed consumers in Eastern markets to the Western notion of beauty, which, for example, continues to drive the market for skin-whitening products. There is therefore a greater preference for lighter, ‘fairer’ skin in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, as fair skin is synonymous with beauty, success and an aspirational mindset to mimic the West. This sentiment is ingrained in societal attitudes and was pivotal in the dynamic and successful fairness cream trend that can be commonly observed in Asia and Middle East.
However, skin whitening is becoming a controversial issue, as some skincare whitening products contain ingredients that are believed to damage the skin. Last year, Japanese cosmetic giant Kanebo recalled 54 skin-whitening cosmetics due to a risk of severe depigmentation and skin damage. The incident, which has not only affected Japan but also other overseas markets, has predictably garnered worldwide attention and shone the spotlight on the booming skin-whitening market. In India, skin lightening and fairness creams are under threat from activists campaigning against skin colour bias and promoting diversity of skin tones. Despite all these setbacks, consumers’ attraction to whitening products is not fading. In terms of product innovation, we are seeing ‘whitening’ claims penetrating a number of new product innovations, even in Western markets. In anti-aging product innovation, for example, consumer expectations are rising as a result of greater awareness of aging indicators such as hyperpigmentation (brown spots) and reduced skin radiance with age. Brands add “healthy white” and “natural white” tags, to help position a product as being healthier than its counterparts. Whitening claims are not just restricted to facial skincare products. Consumers are recognising the need to address skin tone issues beyond just the face – the neckline, hand, legs and body are becoming the focus areas of many skincare products today.
Moving forwards, in an attempt to achieve youthful-looking skin, consumers are likely to seek anti-aging products that claim to specifically address skin-tone issues. This will also impact the way anti-aging products are marketed – driving a focus away from claims of simply reducing fine lines and wrinkles to encompassing skin enhancements such as brightening, and radiance. ‘Fairness’ and skin ‘whitening’ claims are likely to be replaced by greater emphasis on skin brightness, glow and vitality. One interesting point to note, however, is that the whitening benefits of BB (Blemish balms) creams in the East are missing in their Western counterparts. So this is indicative of the fact that whitening claims are not yet as much in demand in the West as they are in the East. But the demand for skin radiance and brightness is universal and we believe will continue to grow.