Not Doctor-Approved: China Bans Marketing of Beauty Products as ‘Medical’

Strict new regulations from China’s Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) are likely to have an impact on how cosmetics are marketed in China. Identifying a beauty product as having “medical benefits” is now illegal.

It’s a step that China’s taking to keep up with global FDA standards, as most countries don’t entertain the idea of “medical” cosmetics and keep medical products separate from cosmetic ones.

Shortly after the regulations were announced, the popular Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao issued a notice to sellers noting they will block “medical cosmetics (药妆)” searches on their site. Such searches now return no results. Several other Chinese e-commerce sites, such as Netease and Vip.com, did the same, but search results could still be found on the massive online e-commerce sites Tmall and JD.com.

Cosmetics brands were quick to follow suit, with multiple Chinese media sites reporting that brands such as La Roche-Posay and Vichy removed all “medical” terms from their official websites.

Specifically, in January, China’s National Medical Products Administration (a unit of the CFDA) issued a policy stating that any cosmetic product with a registered name relating to the phrases “medical cosmetics (药妆)” and “medical skincare products (医学护肤品)” or claiming any medical effect on its packaging or in its promotional campaigns is now considered illegal. Specific cosmetic ingredients can no longer be referred to as medical, including the popular skincare ingredient EGF (epidermal growth factor, which supposedly speeds wound recovery).

The regulations are timely since the medical cosmetics trend is just starting to take off in China. According to the Chinese research institute Qianzhan, the medical cosmetics industry has grown from $3.4 billion (RMB 23 billion) in 2013 to $9.7 billion (RMB 65.2 billion) by 2017.

Given that demand, the industry still has huge room for growth despite the new regulations. China’s medical cosmetics sales currently account for only 20 percent of the entire domestic cosmetics market, while European, American, and Japanese “medical” cosmetics (doctor-approved, prescription drugs) make up roughly 50 to 60 percent of those countries’ domestic cosmetics markets.

In the U.S., companies are only allowed to use vague words like “restorative” to promote cosmetic products, but it isn’t surprising that cosmetics brands would take advantage of consumers by frequently using the term “medical” prior to this regulation. “This will lead to more significant changes in the industry and will protect young consumers,” said Dao Nguyen, founder of creative strategy agency Essenzia, about the regulation’s effect. “The new law will only make them [cosmetic brands] check that the translation/used words are in line with the requests…but deep down, it should not change their ways of marketing the products very much.”

Though there’s plenty of concern about false advertising and dangerous ingredients in China’s cosmetics industry, consumers are gleaning a lot of information from a new generation of beauty bloggers who specialize in using science to demystify cosmetic products and their effects. Sometimes these bloggers even help to police cosmetics companies, such as when the famous beauty blogger Hao Yu sued the luxury cosmetics brand La Mer for exaggerating the effects of their products in their China-based advertising, leading to backlash against products in China that claimed restorative effects.

Recommended ReadingChinese Beauty Blogger Calls Out La Mer for False AdvertisingBy Ruonan Zheng and Yiling Pan
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Nguyen also credited the younger, looks-obsessed generations in China, which have embraced cosmetic procedures like microsurgery, with the rise of medical cosmetics. “I have observed that they tend to search/use/recommend products that would normally be prescribed by dermatologists after surgery,” she said.

That’s precisely why such regulations were needed and, in the long run, the Chinese cosmetics industry will only grow stronger because of them.

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Beauty & Health, Market Trends, Policy