Skin-Lightening Products in China

by Yuan Mingyang

Rondilla (2009) analyzed the influence of the advertisements of multinational cosmetics companies on the colorism in the Philippines. The company that Rondilla examined, L’Oreal, also has its market in mainland China. Therefore, this paper aims to do a similar study on the cosmetic advertisements of the multinational companies in mainland China, and to analyze whether these advertisements in China have a similar influence on the racial discourse in China as they have on the Filipinos according to Rondilla.

The method of this post is to analyze the websites and the advertisements on the websites of According to Dalal (2002), early definition and classification of race usually include the concept of skin color, and what’s more, “colour becomes synonymous with the notion of race” (p. 18). Rondilla (2009) also discussed about the colorism in the Philippines by analyzing the skin-lightening advertisements, but the cause of colorism is a little bit different from what Dalal discussed. The preference for light skin tone also has a long history in China. According to Leong (2006), there are many kinds of folk remedies to lighten one’s skin color in China, for example, drinking a small amount of pearl powder with water everyday (p. 167). Light skin tone shows “elegance and nobility” in China (Ibid, p. 167).

The desire for light skin tone still prevails in China, as well as many other Asian countries, while a favor of tanned skin appears in the West (Leong, 2006). It might be hard to argue that the contemporary desire for light skin color in China is a legacy from the past or a result of colonialism. Two factors may have great influence on the skin-lightening ideology in contemporary China. The first factor that should be noticed is the role of the Communist Party on skin-lightening before the economic reform in the 1980s. According to Hopkins (2007), the Communist Party at that time “rejected displays of difference of any kind, including gender” (p. 289). The uses of almost all kinds of cosmetic products are prohibited (Ibid). Therefore, skin-lightening products should also have been prohibited during this period, for decades. As a result, the recent desire for light skin might be a new one which emerged after the economic reform in the 1980s.

The second factor is the economic reform in the 1980s. According to Hopkins (2007), the cosmetic industry thrived after the economic reform, especially after China became a member of the WTO, which allowed more multinational cosmetics companies to invest in mainland China. Appearance became more and more important for women, and the cosmetic products started to entail new symbolic values (Ibid). Women use these products in order to “look modern and worldly” (Ibid, p. 302), which shows that the desire for light skin tone in contemporary China is representing some new values coming after the reform, which may be probably influenced by foreign countries and globalization.

Therefore, it is reasonable to discuss about the role of racism, as a result of foreign influences after the 1980s, on the skin-lightening fashion in China. Rondilla (2009) pointed out an ideal model of beauty to be Asian and global in the same time. Hopkins (2007) argued Chinese women use cosmetics to be global. This paper aims to prove the statements made by Rondilla and Hopkins in the context of China, with the concern of a potential racial discourse in China. In the first part, the advertisements of three multinational cosmetics companies on their websites in mainland China and the websites themselves will be examined with some of the criteria used by Barnes et al. (2004) in their research on cosmetics advertising in China. The three companies, Shiseido from Japan, L’Oreal from France, and Estee Lauder from the US, are from different parts of the worlds. Therefore, if they are using similar strategies to attract the costumers in China, a general identity of the dominant social values and criteria of beauty believed by most of the Chinese people can be drawn from these advertisements and websites.

In the second part, the findings in the first part will be compared to the similar researches on foreign advertisements in Hong Kong by Leong (2006), and in the Philippines by Rondilla (2009). The second part aims to detect the racial discourse in the advertisements in China by referring to similar researches in other Asian countries. The second part will also give a general image of the role that the multinational cosmetic companies plays in the ideology of light skin tone in China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.

Advertisements of Multinational Companies in China

At first glance, one could see from the layout of the websites of the three companies, Shiseido, L’Oreal, and Estee Lauder, that the main targets of these companies are women. Most of the products are for women, and if a product is for men, it will be put under a special genre. Products for men usually have the word “men” noted in the title, while there is usually no “women” in the title of the products for women. Also, the advertisements for skin-lightening products prevail in the section of skin protection. On the contrary, there seems to be no product for tanning in these websites. As for the best sellers of these websites, the products for skin-lightening have a place in the lists of both Shiseido and Estee Lauder, while L’Oreal does not have a ranking list. Therefore, the assumption of the multinational cosmetics companies in China, when they are making the advertisements and the websites, may be that women are more willing to buy their products, and almost all of them want light skin color.

As for the models in the cosmetic advertisements, Rondilla (2009) stated that using models “racially ambiguous” is very usual in Asia, since they “have global appeal” (p. 71). In the same time, mix-raced models can also fulfill the need to look Asian (Ibid). A similar phenomenon may be found in the websites of foreign companies in China. Estee Lauder seems to prefer to use western models in its website, which can be considered to be a sign of modernity and globality, which proved the statement made by Hopkins (2007) that women purchase cosmetics to look global and modern. On the other hand, that L’Oreal tend to use both Chinese and Western models, which reflects the statement made by Rondilla, shows that the advertisements are stressing both an Asian face and global feature of the products. The study of Barnes et al. (2004) also showed the similar result that the ethnicity of the models usually does not matter, but Asian models are slightly more preferred by Chinese than Western models are. Therefore, most of the Chinese people may accept both Chinese and global faces, but a little bit more prefer their own identities.

Perception of Skin Tone in China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines

This section aims to analyze the racial discourse in China by comparing it to that in Hong Kong and the Philippines. The reason these two countries are chosen is that China has posed some influences on the criteria of beauty in Hong Kong (Leong, 2006) and the Philippines (Rondilla, 2009). For the Filipinos, they use skin-lightening products not to look like westerners but to look like East Asians (Rondilla, 2009, p. 63), in spite of the fact that the image is influenced by Westerners. Rondilla also mentioned a rise of Chinese in the Philippines, which may further reinforce the notion that light skin tone is better and represents higher status. As for Hong Kong, Leong described it as a place where both Chinese and Western values exists.

The colorism in the Philippines that Rondilla (2009) analyzed may have been influenced by other Asian countries, but in the same time it may also influenced these nations in reverse, but as role of the discriminated ones. Leong (2006) noticed the “scale of whiteness” (p. 172) in Hong Kong. In this scale, the skin tone of Japanese and Chinese women are on the top, and the skin tone of Filipinos and people from some of other Asian countries is considered to be dark and is often described as “coarse” (Ibid, p. 172). Leong (2006) pointed out that “social groups such as the Filipinos and Indonesians were the target for much of the participants’ biases throughout their discussions of whiteness and skin tones” (p. 174). The skin tone of Caucasians is also not preferred by Chinese people in Hong Kong (Ibid). Similar phenomenon may also exist in mainland China, since Leong claimed the Chinese values in Hong Kong. With the findings of Barnes et al. (2004) that mainland Chinese people prefer Chinese models in cosmetics advertisements, one can draw a conclusion that in East Asia and Southeast Asia where China has a strong influence, Chinese or Japanese like skin tone rather than Caucasian like skin tone is on the top of the hierarchy, and people from Philippine might be the ones who are discriminated in the skin tone hierarchy in Asia.

As for the logic under the advertisements of the foreign companies and their role in the racial hierarchy, which is close to what Leong (2006) defined as the “scale of whiteness” (p. 172), Leong argued that they are creating “the myth of whiteness”, which emphasizes “purification” and “whiteness” (p. 171). Hopkins (2007) suggested the advertisements seek help from a pre-existing notion that whiteness means less working under the sun in China, which means high social status, in order to make a preferred model and let costumers believe the importance of their products (p. 302). Rondilla (2009) stressed a racial discourse which comes from the colonial period promoted by the advertisements of multinational companies. The existing racial discourse is merged with and reinforced by the colonial racial discourse promoted by multinational companies. The pre-existing preference for light skin tone, the skin tone hierarchy resulted from the interaction between different Asian countries, and the role of the cosmetics companies in spreading a colonial ideology may all have contributed to the construction of the racial discourse in contemporary China, which turns out to be a preference for light skin tone on the surface. The multinational companies are expected to stabilize, reinforce, and promote this racial discourse, when they “attempt to cater to specific markets” (Rondilla, 2009, p. 80), and “promote an ideal” (Hopkins, 2007, p. 302).

This paper aims to analyze the racial discourse in China influenced by the multinational cosmetic companies. The first section analyzed the advertisements on the websites of three multinational cosmetics companies, Shiseido, L’Oreal, and Estee Lauder, in mainland China. The result proved the statement of Hopkins (2007) that Chinese women use cosmetics to be modern and global. The result also contains a racial discourse that white skin tone is considered better by Chinese people. The second section stressed the role of multinational companies in reinforcing an existing skin color discourse as well as creating a new racial discourse as in China. Other factors are also discussed about in this section, while we can still see that the multinational cosmetic companies contribute much to the colorism in contemporary China.


  1. Barnes, B. R., Kitchen, P. J., Spickett-Jones, G, & Yu, Q. (2004). Investigating the impact of international cosmetics advertising in China. International Journal of Advertising, 23(3), 361-387.
  2. Dalal, F. (2002). Race, colour and the process of racialization: New perspectives from group analysis, psychoanalysis and sociology. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
  3. Hopkins, B. E. (2007). Western cosmetics in the gendered development of consumer culture in China. Feminist Economics, 13(3-4), 287-306. doi: 10.1080/13545700701439416
  4. Leong, S. (2006). Who’s the fairest of them all? Television ads for skin-whitening cosmetics in Hong Kong. Asian Ethnicity, 7(2), 167-181. doi: 10.1080/14631360600736215
  5. Rondilla, J. L. (2009). Filipinos and the color complex: Ideal Asian beauty. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of difference: Why skin color matters (pp. 63-80). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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