Goodbye facekinis: Trendy sun protection takes over China

    Chinese consumers are demanding clothes that are both flattering and functional as they shield themselves from the sun. Are sunny days ahead for sportswear brands?
    Image: Xiaohongshu @toptop1010
      Published   in Fashion

    As the weather heats up, long sleeves are coming out in China. Sun protection gear is back for the season, and Chinese consumers are layering up to protect themselves against harsh UV rays.

    For several years, the most sun-conscious individuals in China have donned “hard sun protection”​​(硬防晒), a head-to-toe look resembling that of a beekeeper. Think wide-brimmed hats, arm sleeves, gloves, and the infamous “facekini,” perhaps paired with sunglasses and a parasol for good measure.

    “Never underestimate the creativity of a girl who overprotects herself from the sun,” Xiaohongshu user @baobaomon writes in a post featuring extreme versions of sun protection. (Ugly sun protection is certainly its own form of comedy, fueled by wacky Taobao products.)

    Hard sun protection involves covering the body from head to toe. Image: Xiaohongshu
    Hard sun protection involves covering the body from head to toe. Image: Xiaohongshu

    But in 2024, Chinese shoppers don’t want sun protective clothes that are purely functional. On Xiaohongshu, the hashtag “more fashionable and professional sun protective clothing” (#更时尚的专业防晒衣), spearheaded by local outdoor brand Bosideng, has attracted over 6.7 million views as netizens seek outfits with more style.

    With temperatures on the rise and consumer tastes evolving each year, the market shows no signs of cooling down.

    A scorching market#

    According to data released by iResearch, the sun protective clothing market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 9.4 percent from 2021 to 2026, by which time it will become a 100 billion RMB ($13.8 billion) industry. On Douyin alone, the gross merchandise value of sun protective clothing hit 3.73 billion RMB ($520 million) in 2023, surging 217.4 percent from the year before.

    “Wearing a wide-brimmed visor, sun protection gloves, a cooling face mask, and a lightweight yet UV-resistant hoodie has become essential for shielding Chinese female consumers from the sun,” says Sarah Yam, co-founder of digital marketing agency Red Digital China. “This trend is fueled by unique consumer preferences and cultural standards regarding beauty and wellness.”

    A resistance to tanning doesn’t mean consumers are staying indoors. In fact, rising participation in outdoor activities such as hiking and camping is driving greater demand for outdoor sun protection, notes Lisa Zhang, a project leader at Daxue Consulting.

    “As for sun protective clothing, it also has many irreplaceable advantages compared to sunscreen. It is not only perceived as more effective and safer without any risk of skin irritation and sensitivity, but also more convenient for outdoor activities, [as it] doesn’t require frequent reapplication,” Zhang explains.

    Selling points#

    As the market booms, Chinese shoppers are becoming spoiled for choice. Yet there are particular qualities they are looking for in their purchases. Ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is a main selling point, along with moisture-wicking and breathability.

    “When purchasing sun protective gear, consumers tend to prioritize functionality, style, shape, and comfort. For example, on Xiaohongshu, female consumers have highlighted that the cooling sensation (冰凉感) of the garment is particularly important due to the intense summer heat in China,” Jack Porteous, commercial director of cross-cultural agency Tong, tells Jing Daily.

    At the same time, consumers are searching for clothes that look as good as they feel. These fashion preferences are being influenced by Chinese celebrities as well as outdoor and fashion KOLs, Yam says.

    For example, on the Chinese reality show Sisters Who Make Waves 5, many artists appeared in rehearsals wearing bright, form-fitting sun jackets and yoga pants, popularizing sun protective looks.

    Fashionable sun protective apparel has become increasingly popular thanks to the cast of “Sisters Who Make Waves 5.” Image: Xiaohongshu
    Fashionable sun protective apparel has become increasingly popular thanks to the cast of “Sisters Who Make Waves 5.” Image: Xiaohongshu

    Bosideng breaks conventions#

    Further driving this trend of stylish sunwear is the Chinese clothing brand Bosideng. While primarily known for its winter down jackets, Bosideng has quickly emerged as a leader in UPF apparel, launching its first sun protective clothing series in 2022.

    This year, Bosideng unveiled a new collection that it describes as “more trendy and professionally designed,” focusing on color and cuts as well as technological functions.

    Its Sun 3.0 Series features a UV protection factor of UPF100+, providing a cooler feel that is 66 percent higher than the international standard, a 35 percent increase in breathability, and a 10 percent reduction in product weight, according to the brand. Available in an array of spring and summer gradients, it captures the beauty of the seasons, making it a popular choice among Chinese youth.

    Bosideng held its first sun protective clothing show on April 18 at the Beijing International Film Festival. Image: Bosideng
    Bosideng held its first sun protective clothing show on April 18 at the Beijing International Film Festival. Image: Bosideng

    “[Bosideng] pays attention to details and humanized design. For example, it has a waist-length design that makes your legs look longer; the waistline is drawn in to visually make you slimmer, and the curved hem can modify your proportional figure,” writes Weibo user @mengchongshouji.

    Bosideng, which sells in the mid-to-high-end price range, disclosed in the earnings call that revenue for sun protective clothing in the fiscal year 2023 reached 500 million RMB ($69 million), jumping 300 percent YoY. The goal for 2024 is to generate 1 billion RMB ($138 million) from this category.

    Chinese brands like Moution, Sinsin, and Bananain, along with global brands like Uniqlo and Nike, have also joined the race. To boost its visibility, Beneunder has unveiled partnerships with high-profile Chinese celebrities, including Jay Chou and Yang Mi.

    Yang Mi wears Beneunder’s quick-drying jacket, sun protective skirt, and rain boots. Image: Beneunder
    Yang Mi wears Beneunder’s quick-drying jacket, sun protective skirt, and rain boots. Image: Beneunder


    That said, not everyone is buying into the sun protection frenzy. Some see it as a mere marketing ploy; others see it as actually detrimental to health. On Xiaohongshu, the hashtag “reject extreme sun protection” (#拒绝过度防晒) has amassed 4.8 million views as netizens share their skin health knowledge.

    “After three years of sun protection, I developed osteoporosis. The doctor said if I don’t get some sun exposure, all my teeth will fall out,” writes Xiaohongshu user @dabiaojiekaixiang. Studies show that a long-term lack of vitamin D is linked to calcium deficiency, which puts people at risk for issues like osteoporosis and tooth decay.

    However, Stephanie Kauffman, President of the Melanoma Research Association, stresses that the more skin covered, the better.

    “Although the incidence and mortality rates for melanoma are lower in China than the global average, incidence rates have rapidly increased, making melanoma one of the fastest-growing cancers in China. Melanoma in China is more aggressive and has higher mortality rates compared with the European and American populations,” she says.

    According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a reading of 1-2 on the UV index does not require sun protection; 3–7 requires sunscreen and protective clothing; and 8 and above necessitates extra protection. The Melanoma Research Alliance recommends a minimum of 30 UPF in the lightest clothing color available.

    Anyone’s game#

    Clearly, Chinese brands are quick to respond to consumer trends, giving them an enormous advantage as first-movers. So, is there still room for Nike and the like to maneuver?

    Porteous thinks so: “Global brands still have opportunities to compete by emphasizing technological innovation and unique product design, supported by their own patented fabrics and solutions.”

    Zhang concurs: “As Uniqlo and Nike already have high brand awareness and recognizable brand identities with a huge consumer base in China, they have the brand assets to compete in the market, and they can meet consumer needs for more casual and daily occasions.”

    In addition to leveraging their innate advantages, global players could also learn a thing or two from Chinese brands. According to Yam, “this includes speeding up production to launch popular localized styles, ensuring sufficient stock levels to meet demand, and focusing on collaborating with Chinese celebrities and influencers for effective social media marketing to capture the growing Chinese Gen Z consumer base.”

    Ultimately, as sun protective wear becomes more fashionable — or as fashion becomes more sun protective — global and local brands alike have a chance to shine in China.

    • By 2026, the sun protection apparel market is expected to reach a value of approximately 100 billion RMB ($13.8 billion), fueled by rising skin health awareness and increased participation in outdoor sports.
    • There is a notable shift in consumer preferences towards sun protective clothing that is not only functional but also stylish, influenced by Chinese brands like Bosideng and online fashion trends.
    • Although Chinese brands are quicker at adapting to consumer trends, global brands like Nike and Uniqlo have opportunities to compete in the Chinese market by leveraging technological innovation and unique product designs.
    • Emphasizing the versatility and convenience of sun protective clothing compared to sunscreen (e.g., no need for reapplication, less skin irritation) can appeal to active consumers engaged in outdoor activities like hiking and camping.
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