Are Chinese-made skincare brands downplaying their origins to appeal to Southeast Asians?

Malaysian beauty consumer Farhana* was planning to buy some new skincare products when she finally settled on Skintific, a brand widely marketed in Malaysia and Indonesia.

“It is quite a big phenomenon here,” the Kuala Lumpur resident told This Week in Asia. “It is widely marketed here, using celebrity ambassadors, and is already sold in Malaysian drug stores.”

But Farhana ended up not buying the product after she found out that Skintific goods were made in China, prompting her to doubt if they were halal certified.

Skintific, which was launched in Indonesia in 2021, is one of several Chinese-made skincare brands that have been making rapid inroads in Muslim dominated markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia in recent years due to their low prices and perceived high quality.

Yet many of these brands appear to downplay the fact they are manufactured in China in favour of presenting themselves as local products made specifically for the Indonesian and Malaysian markets, an analyst says. Such positioning would allow them to sidestep concerns about safety and halal certification that other Chinese-made products might face.

Local beauty brands like Wardah and Somethinc are halal certified. Photo: Aisyah Llewellyn

While other Western and Korean skincare products have also flooded the Malaysian and Indonesian markets in recent years, these brands do not obscure their “foreign” origins, meaning consumers are able to make a more informed decision.

Visitors to the Skintific website are greeted by a smiling picture of its brand ambassador Nicholas Saputra, a famous Indonesian film star. But nowhere on the site, including on its “About Us” page, does it mention the brand’s origins or where its products are manufactured.

Fitr, a salesperson at a pharmacy in Medan who declined to give her last name, said the Skintific skincare range had been flying off the store’s shelves in recent months.

But the use of Indonesian brand ambassadors and unclear marketing has led to misunderstandings among shoppers, she said.

“People think that Skintific is an Indonesian brand, but actually it is made in China,” she said, turning over a box to show the words “Made in the PRC” printed on the back in tiny letters.

When contacted for comment, a Skintific customer service representative told This Week in Asia that “Skintific was specifically developed for Indonesian users” and that “the formula itself comes from global laboratories, such as South Korea and Canada”.

The representative explained that the products’ raw materials came from the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and Japan, but were produced in China and South Korea. They said Skintific was also sold in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia.

But the customer service agent declined to reveal the founder and owner of the company, saying they could only speak about “product questions and facial consultations”.

Skintific is not the only skincare brand launched in recent years that was developed for the Indonesian market but produced in China. Among others are Glad2Glow, The Originote and Lavojoy.

These brands also state they are “Made in the PRC” on their packaging but are often sold in the “local brands” sections of pharmacies. Their websites also contain little to no information about their origins.

Lavojoy products have a “Made in PRC” printed on them. Photo: Aisyah Llewellyn

Brands such as Skintific might not be keen to discuss origins, in light of past scandals of other products regarding unsafe ingredients and which were from China, said Trissia Wijaya, a senior research fellow at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

“There are a lot of counterfeit products in China and there have been other issues such as the fake baby milk scandals,” she said.

China has experienced a number of scandals related to baby milk, the worst of which took place in 2008 after some producers for a Chinese company were found to have added the chemical melamine to their formula, which can be toxic in high doses, leading to the deaths of six children.

“We need to take a cautious approach and this reminds us why many Chinese customers themselves often travel to Hong Kong just to buy medicine,” Wijaya said.

Skintific and the other imported Chinese-made brands must still meet the standards of local regulators such as the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority (BPOM) to be sold legally in their markets.

Indonesian officials have in the past warned about the potential dangers of illegally imported Chinese-made cosmetics, a stigma that brands would likely still want to avoid.

In 2007, BPOM said most illegally imported cosmetics from China contained mercury, which can damage the nerves, kidneys and skin. In December 2020, BPOM seized 10.8 billion Indonesian rupiah worth of illegal cosmetics – most of which came from China and South Korea.

“We know that the modus operandi is distributing illegally imported cosmetics online through e-commerce platforms, as well as distributing these products through online transportation and expedition services,” said Penny K. Lukito, head of BPOM at the time.

Wijaya said the Chinese government had been trying to crack down on quality control in recent years, but that issues lingered.

“Quality control measures have been increasing but, since Chinese companies are used to large markets, they are more often chasing quantity rather than quality.”

“At the same time, they have the opportunity to innovate, but price wars actually become an obstacle to the extent to which they can innovate using products with guaranteed quality,” she said.

Quality control measures have been increasing but, since Chinese companies are used to large markets, they are more often chasing quantity rather than quality
Trissia Wijaya, Japan’s Ritsumeikan University

Another issue Chinese-made products face in Muslim-majority markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia is that consumers might be concerned about whether they have received halal certification or be otherwise free from products that Muslims cannot consume, such as alcohol or pork.

Rochmaeda Kurnia Fauziah, a midwife based in Bekasi on the outskirts of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, said she used Skintific’s serums and masks when her skin was suffering from bad breakouts, and that they appeared to work well.

Fauziah said it was “not a problem” that the products were made in China, but was surprised to learn that they were not fully halal certified.

“It is obviously a factor for me when I’m choosing a skincare brand,” she said. “I will not use Skintific again until it really and truly has a halal certificate.”

When asked about halal certification, Skintific told This Week in Asia: “The halal logo is not yet available on product packaging because it is still going through the licensing process. However, our products are BPOM certified and most products are vegan and free from testing on animals and living creatures.”

Indonesia’s Wardah, which is owned by Indonesian firm Paragon Technology and Innovation, was created in 1995 and helped to pioneer halal skincare and make-up for the Muslim market at low prices. Photo: Aisyah Llewellyn

Wijaya said products like Skintific appear to have been created to compete with Indonesian brands like Wardah, which have long dominated the local market.

Wardah, which is owned by Indonesian firm Paragon Technology and Innovation, was created in 1995 and helped to pioneer halal skincare and make-up for the Muslim market at low prices.

Other famous local skincare brands include ERHA, which was established in 1998, and newcomers like Somethinc that launched in 2019.

Like Wardah, both ERHA and Somethinc are halal certified.

When asked about halal certification in Malaysia, a Skintific customer service representative also told This Week in Asia that “all Skintific products in Malaysia have FDA [the US Food and Drug Administration] approval, which can be accessed via the QR code on the packaging”.

Malaysian consumer Farhana said she took this to mean that Skintific’s products were not yet halal certified, but added she remained open to buying them upon proper certification.

*Name changed on request of interviewee



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