The Anti-Aging Boom Is Underway in China

While China has historically been a country that respects and values its elders, China is in the throes of a nationwide anti-aging boom. Observers note enthusiasm for anti-aging products across all demographics. The movement is bucking an overall slowdown in growth in the post-covid beauty market. Why the demand for anti-aging products? Growing anxiety over one’s appearance on social media and a fast-growing aging population.

Fear of aging isn’t all that new. A decade ago, a state media report revealed that Chinese are most fearful about aging. Back then I was skeptical about the findings; but, 10 years later, I’m much convinced after witnessing much market transition over recent years. For example, 20- and 30-somethings, panicked with the thought of aging use social media handles such as: “Post-00 Old Girl” and “Post-90s Old Aunt.” These women regard age prevention as a top priority. On the flip side, women ages 45 and up are eager to reverse the effects of time and refer to themselves as “Forever Young Goddess.”

Further fueling this anti-aging movement is China’s aging population, which, according to WHO, is one of the fastest growing in the world. These groups are more willing to spend time, money and efforts in looking youthful than their western counterparts, largely due to cultural and societal differences.

A Segmented Aging Market

Tapping into this macro trend, the claim of anti-aging is all over the place here, ranging from cosmetics, foods and supplements to at-home beauty devices and professional services. These services include beauty salons and related institutions offering preventative and corrective procedures like hyaluronic/botox injections and laser therapy. To meet increasingly diversified needs from different demographics, the market is also evolving and becoming more segmented. 

In the cosmetic sector, the consumers already diverge between prevention of early aging and treatment of mature aging. On the former, it is the young women with the common mentality of starting anti-aging regimens as early as possible. These young women account for most  online anti-aging product sales. Their enthusiasm has rejuvenated many high-end brands in China.

Women between 26 and 35 years of age, are most interested in learning anti-aging information, according to iiMedia Research. And this trend is skewing even younger. During 2020’s 618 Shopping Festival, 25% of purchasers of products claiming early aging prevention were 22 and younger, according to China’s e-commerce giant JD. 

At the other end of the spectrum, older consumers are beginning to be identified as the next big group in the anti-aging cosmetics sector. It is easily understood if we look at the latest official statistics: China’s population of people over 60 years old surpassed 267 million in 2021, accounting for 18.9% of the total population. By 2030, those 60 and older account for 25.5% of the population or 330 million. And with the accelerated pace of embracing digital tech and online shopping since the covid, online cosmetic sales by old generations have spiked in terms of buyer and revenue numbers. 

Social media and e-commerce are quick to act on this trend. Alibaba started its “Taobao for Elders” program in early 2018 to tap into the generation’s online spending potential. Xiaohongshu (Chinese for “Little Red Book”) is a well-known online lifestyle community targeting China’s youth. It recently expanded to include the elderly, launching Laohongshu (“Old Red Book”). 

Along with these consumer changes, comes product segmentation. Anti-aging face skin care are diversifying into specific areas of eye (even upper and lower eyelids), cheek and lip, and also expanding to hair and scalp, neck and hand/nail. Hair/scalp care, anti-hair loss/thinning in particular is gaining tremendous attention. When it comes to benefit claims, sagging, wrinkles/fine lines and pigmentation are still top concerns among all groups. In contrast, dull complexion (mainly the result of staying up late) is a concern of the young. In addition, enlarged pores and excessive sebum are growing in concern. By product form, freeze-dried powder and essential oil, serum and eye cream are leading the way.

“Black Tech” Drives Growth

Such segmentation is further driven by the consumer’s growing knowledge about the anti-aging category. Thanks largely to the rigorous consumer education by KOL on social media, the terms on aging mechanisms are increasingly familiar to ordinary consumers. More shoppers understand the meaning behind words such as reactive oxygen species (ROS), glycation, “inflammaging,” skin immunity and even cellular senescence.

While I suppose that most shoppers are still digesting these terms, beauty brands have wasted no time using them in their marketing campaigns. 

This, of course, aligns with a surge in science-backed efficacy claims in the cosmetics market. Quite often, brands leverage so-called “black tech” to promote their cutting-edge position. Black tech includes transdermal delivery system, digital technology and biotechnology. Specifically, nano- or micro-encapsulation are increasingly highlighted to demonstrate the improved effectiveness of products via enhancing transdermal penetration of actives.

AI focused on personalized care are frequently spotted in the anti-aging segment, in both technical R&D and customer-centric marketing. And ingredients of natural or biotechnological origin, fermentation and synthetic biotechnology in particular, are current hero ingredients.

What’s Trending?

Among trending anti-aging actives in China, the most discussed include peptides (mainly acetyl hexapeptide-8 and copper tripeptide), c-Xyloside (known as Pro-Xylane from L’Oréal), ectoin, Bifida ferment lysate and nicotinamide. Of course, anti-aging staples like retinoidsvitamins C and E, and collagen remain popular. Gaining traction are emerging antioxidants like ergothioneine (EGT), astaxanthin and fullerene. Bevol, a local cosmetic review/ingredient query platform, recently published its lists of active ingredients in anti-aging skin care registered in the database between January 2021 and May 2022. Those with the fastest growth rates are retinyl propionate, tangerine fruit extract, tuber magnatum extract, camellia seed oil and saccharomyces ferment filtrate.

Looking young continues to be the dominant consumer interest in China’s anti-aging cosmetic sector. Ironically, to-date it is the younger generation driving growth. But older consumers are expected to play an important part in the future. Although more open to innovative technologies and novel concepts, Chinese consumers largely have less relaxed attitudes toward aging and narrower standards on youthful appearance than their Western counterparts. This could explain why the idea of well-aging, which is gaining popularity in the West, is nowhere near mainstream here, despite some nascent efforts taken by a few brands.

Overall, China’s anti-aging cosmetic sector should be heading for a prosperous future, as it is long on both audience and product ideas. However, optimism must be tempered by the latest news regarding a local brand fined by the State Administration for Market Regulation  for its “anti-aging claim not supported by the fact.” The fine should serve as a note of caution that regulations could pour cold water on this hot category. As the official explained, the claims of anti-wrinkle and firming allowed in cosmetic products are not equivalent to anti-aging because the latter is much broader and short of evaluation methods in China. (Source: happi.com)

So, where do anti-aging cosmetics go next? Regulators will have the final say. 

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