New softener bolsters UV protection

Detergent firm goes beyond the pale to hype the beauty of whiteness

by Kenzo Moriguchi

OSAKA — Times have changed from the days when young girls were eager to get a dark tan and be called “ganguro,” or “black-faced.”

The latest beauty trend is to be as white as possible, setting the stage for myriad ultraviolet-ray-blocking products lining drug store shelves under the genre called “bihaku,” or literally “beautifully white.”

According to an official at top cosmetics firm Shiseido Co., the market for UV-ray-blocking products is estimated at 35 billion yen and has been expanding by 10 percent annually for the past five years. The official added that the bihaku phenomenon is more than a fashion trend, as awareness is growing about the health risks associated with UV rays.

Seeking to cash in on the bihaku bandwagon is an Osaka-based detergent firm that claims to have developed a softening agent that reduces the amount of UV rays going through clothing by more than 96 percent, the first such product in Japan.

Nissan Soap Co., a relatively small firm compared with toiletry giants like Kao Corp. and Lion Corp., came up with the idea for the product after seeing many women using black parasols against the strong summer sun.

“Bihaku has become the dominant idea in the cosmetic industry in recent years and the brisk sales of black parasols last summer, even among young ladies, showed that the majority of them do not want to get a tan,” said Nissan Soap official Yasuhiro Kubota.

Using a UV-ray absorber, Nissan developed UV Cut Softener, whose effects are guaranteed by the Skin Cancer Foundation in New York, a nonprofit foundation that promotes protective steps against skin cancer.

Kubota said that the firm’s product is the first softening agent to be granted the SCF’s seal of approval, meaning it helps reduce UV rays going through clothes by at least 93.33 percent.

According to Nissan, after three washes, clothes will have a UV-ray blocking effect of UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) 16, clearing the SCF’s criteria of reaching UPF 15 after five applications.

The UPF rating shows how effective clothing is in shutting out UV rays. The rating ranges from 15 to 50. The higher the rating, the more effective in providing protection for the wearer.

“Because the mechanism of our product is similar to dyeing, the more often the agent is applied, the stronger the UV-ray cutting effect becomes, reaching UPF 30 after 10 washings,” Kubota said.

The company claims its product is much cheaper than buying ready-made UV-ray blocking clothes.

Since its launch in April, the product is selling as well as expected — the firm said it has sold roughly 30,000 bottles each month.

But Yoko Suzuki, a researcher at the private think tank UFJ Institute, is a bit skeptical about whether such products will really take root.

Suzuki observed that the shift from ganguro to bihaku is due to the changes in fashion among the celebrities whom young consumers are eager to follow.

“Because most UV-ray-blocking items recently on the market are fashion-related goods such as parasols or hats, they may lose popularity as the trend fades,” she said.

“It is not certain whether UV-ray reducing products other than cosmetics will become as popular as clothes for daily use,” Suzuki said. “But compared with the hype over antibacterial goods a few years back, the idea of cutting UV-rays will likely be a long-lasting one, especially among fashion-conscious women.”