Sales of sun protective products in China were worth nearly $4 billion in 2021, providing fertile new ground for traditional outdoor gear makers and a growing field of newcomers

Key Takeaways:

  • China’s sun protection market has grown from a niche industry to a major force worth billions of dollars in sales each year targeting health- and fashion-conscious consumers
  • The industry has provided a new growth area for existing names like Columbia and North Face, and spawned newer homegrown players like Beneunder and Sanfo Outoor

  

By Lin Yaxin

It’s 9 a.m. in mid-July, and Luo Yan starts her daily sun protection routine. First the 22-year-old college undergraduate takes out a sunscreen designed specifically for sensitive skin and applies it slowly and evenly on her face and arms. Wearing a white dress today, she selects matching beige sun protection clothing, along with a rosy sun face mask as a contrast. She sets off, sun umbrella in hand, soon to cross paths with a torrent of other umbrella-toting young students like herself.

“I want to protect my skin,” she says, her voice all seriousness. “For vulnerable skin like mine, ‘hard’ sun protection is more essential than the ‘soft’ kind.”

Luo is just one of the thousands of spokes in a wheel of a Chinese sun protection market that is rolling ahead with scorching speed. In China alone, the market was worth a blinding 27 billion yuan ($3.9 billion) in 2021, according to China Insights Consultancy, which estimated sun protection sales will grow at an annual rate of 9.4% to reach 95.8 billion yuan by 2026.

The explosion is giving rise to not only a new generation of sun protection gear and other products, but also minting big bucks for traditional makers of outdoor wear as well as some newcomers. The former group includes names like Columbia Sportswear Co. (COLM.US) and V.F. Corp. (VFC.US), owner of the North Face brand, while the latter includes domestic names like Beneunder, which filed for a Hong Kong IPO last year, as well as Sanfo Outdoor Products (002780.SZ).

As more companies pile into the space and bring their product upgrades, integrated marketing and other more professional approaches, what was traditionally a “summer” business is slowly transforming into a year-round industry. Beneunder spent 71.6 million yuan on product development in 2021, as well as larger sums on promotion.

The concepts of “hard” and “soft” sun protection Luo describes are emerging as a major distinction in China, as more people become aware of the ultraviolet rays that may cause tanning, aging, wrinkling and even skin cancers. Sunblock helps people avoid sunshine in a relatively “soft” way, while protective accessories such as masks, clothing, hats and gloves are considered a “hard” approach to fighting off the sun’s harmful effects.

In China and other North Asian countries, fair skin is considered highly desirable as part of the local beauty lexicon, a preference that could come from the differences in social classes. Those with whiter skin are less likely to engage in outdoor manual work, especially activities involving long-time exposure to the sun. Thus, fair skin has come to symbolize a better life.

As China’s prosperity has grown, so has the disposable income that an emerging middle class has to spend on a wider array of products targeting their desire for better sun protection to maintain their fair skin.

New categories

What started as a niche market has grown to include not only new categories like masks, leggings, and Martin boots, but also “futuristic” technologies like ultraviolet-proof fabrics. In addition to functionality, the wearable newcomers and the growing field of companies that sell them are also finding profits by appealing to people’s aesthetic tastes. Luo said she bought three sun protection masks last summer alone, attracted by their function as well as their fashionable design.

Social media marketing has helped to fuel the explosion. Aside from steadily-updated products to attract consumers, brands are building their images through cooperation with key opinion leaders (KOLs) and with celebrity endorsements.

By the end of June, Beneunder, which is also known as “China’s first sun protective stock,” had boosted its image with 1,577 influencers, 2.64 times that at the end of 2021, according to information in its IPO prospectus. Among them, nearly 200 of its KOLs had over 1 million followers, posting related content that has earned 450 million total views.

Another brand called Cogi recorded sales of nearly 9 million yuan in a single day after announcing its new brand spokesman, Karry Wang last May, just in time for summer. The move helped make its “Little Yellow Hat” a hit among the sun-conscious crowd. Born in the 1990s, Wang is a Chinese singer and actor with 82 million fans on Weibo, often called the Twitter of China.

While the beauty associated with fair skin enjoys a long history in China, it hasn’t been without some controversy – a potential sticking point that sun protective product makers may need to watch out for. Vivian Cheng, a senior account manager at a public relations agency, said she refuses all internal whitening products as her own personal form of protest, adding she will sometimes deliberately expose her skin to the sun. “It is better for my health,” she says, with a hint of smile.

Her sentiment has some foundation in science, since moderate exposure to ultraviolet light helps people to synthesize vitamin D. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is closely associated with common chronic diseases such as bone metabolic disorders, tumors and diabetes, meaning such conditions could be exacerbated by excessive protection. Another study in the leading academic journal Cell also found that proper “sunning” can improve learning and ability to memorize.

While the rise of the new generation of sun protective products is largely the result of savvy marketing, experts say the dangers of too much sun shouldn’t be exaggerated. Instead, they say, people should be educated to properly understand the role of sunshine and respond reasonably. A doctor surnamed Cui said overdoing sun protection can be counterproductive. “With high outdoor temperatures in summer, if you cover up too much and sweat too much, you might suffer from heatstroke or develop symptoms as rashes,” he said.

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