In the broiling July heat, a stream of delivery people on electric scooters dash along Beijing’s streets and pavements, navigating their way through hordes of Chinese tourists and droves of commuters rushing to work… It’s a sprawling sight of sun umbrellas, face-to-neck masks, arm coverings and sunproof light hoodies–a full-fledged sun-blocking bonanza. When it comes to their skin, there’s not an inch for those rough rays of light to pinch. Sun-protective apparel is the hottest style in town.
As a recent hot spell transformed many cities in China into an easy bake oven too hot for children, or even many adults for that matter, to handle, recent sales of sun protection products increased by more than 50 percent month on month, Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com reported in mid-July.
In the skincare industry, sun exposure is responsible for most signs of skin aging, including wrinkles, pigmentation or reduced skin elasticity. Compared with sunscreens that you need to reapply several times a day—unless you go for La Roche-Posay’s SPF50 as yours truly does, #noplugjusttruth–covering up is considered the most effective way to avoid damage caused by sun exposure.
Along with people’s awareness of skin health, the pursuit of fair skin and the popularity of outdoor sports also drive consumers’ demand for escaping harmful sun rays. On lifestyle slash e-commerce platform 小红书 (xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book (LRB)), for example, most content on sun protection products underscores the quest for a fair complexion and a rather pale, minimalist style.
But like UV rays, Temper digs a little deeper.
To Be Fair…
No shade, but the Chinese obsession with fair skin is nothing new.
The preference for fair skin in China is rooted in history and can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220A.D.). At the time, skin tone became a representation of status due to the fact that wealthier families did not have to work laboriously in the sun. Therefore, those who came from families of wealth often had lighter skin.
There are several variations of an old Chinese saying that is still often repeated today: “White skin can help conceal 100 physical flaws.”
In addition to the pursuit of fairer skin, the popularity of sun-protection measures also results from people’s growing awareness of the potential harm of excessive exposure to sunlight. Fast financial facts:
The market scale of China’s sun-protective clothing industry increased from RMB 45.9 billion (USD 6.4 billion) in 2016 to RMB 67.5 billion (USD 9.4 billion) last year. The figure is projected to reach RMB 74.2 billion (USD 10.3 billion) this year, according to China Insights Consultancy, a financing advisory firm headquartered in Shanghai.
A recent report by big data intelligence service agency QuestMobile showed that, in April, 177 million users viewed sun-protection-related content on six social media and short video platforms including LRB and Douyin, China’s Tiktok, up 34 percent year on year. Of the users, 53.4 percent were under 30 years old, indicating young people’s increasing interest in sun-protective products, China’s only English newsweekly Beijing Review wrote in early July.
In addition to the already popular sunscreens, data collected from January last year to April this year by social media industry consulting platform Qian-gua.com, showed that sun-protective clothing has appeared more often in comments and been searched more often than sunscreens on LRB. The platform’s hashtag 防晒衣 (fángshàiyī| sun-protective clothing), for example, had over 1 million notes as of July 15; 防晒油皮 ( fángshài yóupí| sunscreen) “only” had 311k notes.
FYI: Notes on LRB often center on the user’s own consumption experience, which serves as a useful guide for other users. Generally, photos and text notes are used to convey more detailed product information, whereas short and fast-moving videos highlight looks as well as (dis)advantages of the product in a Douyin style format.
Speaking of the latter, the tag 防晒衣穿塔 (fángshàiyī chuān tǎ | sun-protective style) on Douyin had raked in a whopping 1.16 billion related short videos and livestreams as of the same date.
With the rising popularity of outdoor sports like cycling, hiking, rock climbing, glamping, and so the hot-to-trot list goes on, over the past 1.5 years, sun protection is in huge demand in the related sectors, with 89 percent of outdoor explorers buying sun protection products, according to an industry report released by Beijing-based research firm iResearch in March.
My Fair Gentleman
Women are still the main but no longer the only consumers of sun protection products. The sun-protective product market for men, babies and children is also expanding. After all, with more than 75% of Chinese men born after the 1990s developing skincare routines during their college years, the daily use of male beauty products in this demographic is quickly becoming the new normal.
These trends have seen Chinese men, particularly those under 30 living in the nation’s metropolises, spend increasing sums on their appearance and grooming habits. No wonder the men, too, are opting to shield their well-maintained skin from the harsh UV rays.
QuestMobile data showed that sales of sunscreens for babies and children on Douyin had reached RMB 133 million (USD 18.6 million) in April, accounting for 24.2 percent of the total. On Tmall, an e-commerce platform run by Chinese tech titan Alibaba, there were twice as many men purchasing sun-protective clothing in June as there were during the same period last year. New related products exclusively for men, including larger hats and sun umbrellas, are popping up everywhere.
According to a report on sales of sun protection products on social media platforms in 2023, compiled by social media industry consulting platform Feigua.cn, those born after 2000 account for 37.3 percent of male consumers of said products.
On LRB, hashtag 防晒男 ( fángshài nán| sun protection for men) featured 780k products and 115k notes as of July 15. Hashtag 防晒衣男 (fángshàiyī nán| sun-protective clothing for men) had over 17k notes and 452k products. On Douyin, the latter tag came with 74.7 million videos and livestreams as of the same date; the tag’s female counterpart had 120 million. Translation: Fiyah.
Variety, The Spice of Style
Specializing in sun protection gear, including hoodies, hats, arm sleeves and over-sized face masks, domestic bands such as Beneunder and Bananain are looking to get a larger piece of the market’s hottest pie.
From the special fabric to new weaving and coating technologies, the designs and functions of sun protection clothing are all key angles of marketing on social media platforms. Some of these products even claim to have added features such as driving away mosquitoes.
Brands specializing in the sector such as the Shenzhen-UV-protective clothing brand Beneunder are joined by outdoor apparel makers such as U.S. outdoor gear brand North Face, and even Bosideng, a major Chinese manufacturer of the country’s ever-popular wintertime down jackets, in the race to shield Chinese consumers from the sun, Beijing Review reported.
There is also a wider variety of sun-protective products on the market, including light jackets, hats, sunglasses, gloves, sleeves to cover forearms, face masks and stockings. Almost every part of the body that can be exposed in the sun has a corresponding product to cover it.
An updated version of the “facekini” has recently become a hit with consumers. The “fashion” phenomenon first appeared in hot coastal retreat of Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, in 2004. It’s basically a swimming cap that extends to cover almost the entire head, with openings for the nose, eyes and mouth. Its upgraded model exposes the eyes only.
Sun protection products now also feature many new functions. For instance, online-based loungewear and lingerie brand Bananain claims its sun-protective clothes use a fabric that can make people feel cooler and Bosideng is using UV-Cut fabric, a hi-tech fiber with a high-density fabric structure that better protects wearers against UV rays than traditional fabrics such as nylon and polyester.
With the new functions also come new, higher price tags, with some items of clothing selling for as much as RMB 1,000 (USD 139). However, industry insiders caution that higher price does not necessarily mean higher quality.
According to Beijing Review, Wang Yongdong, a dermatologist with Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, told Qianjiang Evening News that “no sun-protective clothing offers unique hi-tech protection.” There are primarily two ways for them to offer protection from the sun: “tightly knitted fabrics that reduce the amount of sunshine that can penetrate and a coating to increase refraction.” #nowyouknow
Sun’s out, buns out no more.
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