Indeed, several cosmetic brands have been accused of promoting lighter skin over darker skin in the course of the last year, while the consumer media has also played a large part in shining a light on potentially dangerous whitening and brightening ingredients such as hydroquinone and mercury.
So with all this negative publicity throughout the Asia Pacific region, you might expect consumer appetite for this type of product to be curbed, right?
Category continuing to boom
Think again. Latest data from market researcher Euromonitor International shows that the total market for skin is continuing to grow at breakneck speed, with the market growing from US$11.9bm in 2014 to US$14.4bn in 2015, representing annual growth of 21%.
So what is driving this growth? With respect to product categories, the fastest growth is coming from facial masks and anti-ageing products, while moisturisers and toners are also supporting robust growth.
Geographically it is still China that is leading the way in skin whitening, both in respect to the size of the market and its continued growth. Indeed, even with clear signs of the economy slowing down in the country, figures demonstrate that consumer spend in this area remains strong.
Other markets that are also showing very strong growth in demand for skin whitening products include India, which this year eclipsed China for the fastest economic growth, as well as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.
Questioning skin whitening
The growth earmarks the category as being by far the fastest expanding in the region, but this comes despite the fact that both the media and consumer groups are making moves to question the message that these type of products are sending out.
Indeed a campaign was launched earlier this by Indian company Banjara, a herbal skin care brand, that attempted to reject the traditional focus on skin lightening in both India and the rest of the region.
The campaign also seeks to promote the brand’s products, which are natural-based, and points tries to stress the fact that the pressure to lighten skin is very strong and often leads people to feel needlessly unhappy about their appearance.
Getting in trouble over whitening claims
Then there have been the companies that have got into trouble over their product claims and marketing campaigns. Some regulatory authorities in Asia don’t like any type of product claims that touch on the physiological.
Then there are product claims that touch on the offensive, or even racist. In Thailand the brand Seol Secret hit on the wrong note with many consumers when its campaign hinted that lighter skin was more desirable than darker skin.
Formulations go more natural
But despite the controversy, the research and development into the skin whitening area and the product launches is unending, underlined by the market growth and the way forward for new launches is pointing towards more natural formulations.
Korea-based Amore Pacific, one of the biggest skin care players in the region, has invested heavily in research for skin whitening ingredients and recently got approval for a new natural-based technology that is being billed as the next generation in solutions for the category.
A higher level of sophistication
Although it seems that growth in the category shows no sign of slowing, it does also seem that the approach to both formulation and the way in which these brands will be marketed and branding is evolving, in line with culturally acceptable standards of beauty and a growing interest in beauty products that also straddle health and wellbeing.
Prestige skin player Clarins entered the Asian skin whitening market earlier this year, with Clarins White Plus, Pure Translucency Tri-Intensive Brightening Serum, a sophisticated launch that perhaps sets the bar higher for the category.