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Business trends

In vogue in Asia: Skin lightening serums, lasers and apps

Companies from Japan to Israel cash in on a growing market

HONG KONG -- Every year, Hong Kong resident Kristy Tang spends hundreds of dollars on skin-lightening creams, face masks, drinks and other products in pursuit of a complexion as fair as the models she sees in Japanese magazines.

"All the models featured there have very pale skin," the 23-year-old said. "I want to look like them."

Tang, who has been using whitening products since she was 19 and insists they are worth the money, is part of a growing contingent of Asian consumers with the same preference for a paler look. Cosmetics makers are reaping the rewards.

Japan's Pola released its White Shot skin-whitening brand in Hong Kong and elsewhere in March. It followed up in June with its wrinkle-fighting Wrinkle Shot Medical Serum.

Makoto Yuizono, Pola's senior official in charge of overseas operations, said the company's monthly sales in Hong Kong have been growing at an average rate of 80% on the year since the beginning of 2018.

Japanese rival Kose in September set up a new sales space in Hong Kong dedicated to its Sekkisei line of lightening products. The company also said it is logging strong sales in mainland China through Alibaba Group Holding's Tmall online marketplace.

Kose's high-end Cosme Decorte brand of serums and skin lotions is performing well, too. In Asia outside Japan, the company racked up a 56% sales increase for the April-June quarter on a year-on-year basis.

In Hong Kong and mainland China, fair skin is widely perceived to be desirable. Tang's mother would tell her that women who have light skin are "prettier."

Kose contends that many buyers of its Sekkisei line pass it on to their daughters.

The whitening boom is contributing to the growth of the broader Asia-Pacific skin care market. The market expanded to $63 billion in 2017, up nearly 20% from three years earlier, according to British research company Euromonitor.

Asia's fair skin craze is creating other business opportunities as well.

China's Meitu counts 350 million monthly users of its image-enhancing app, which lets people retouch photos for social media. One survey found that more than half the selfies posted on Chinese social media sites have been edited with Meitu's app.

The software's skin-lightening function is also popular in Thailand and Vietnam.

Israel-based Sisram Medical, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, holds a leading share of the Chinese medical laser equipment market thanks to its laser skin-whitening technology. Sisram's beauty-related sales for the first half of this year jumped 28%.

Katie Lau, a Hong Kong doctor who uses Sisram's equipment at her clinic, is planning a move to a larger facility.

Lau's skin-whitening treatment requires three or four sessions, each costing a few hundred dollars. Despite the expense, she does not worry about tough economic times, as many customers have come to see the treatment as a necessity.

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