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TOKYO-Kao Corp. is joining the burgeoning market of skin whiteners, a market booming both from fear of skin cancer and the 1,000-year-old Japanese desire for fairer skin.

Kao's Sofina Medicated Whitening Cream is the newest entrant in a $1.5 billion category dominated by Shiseido Co.'s Whiteness Essence brand, which holds 40% of the market. Kao is using a value pitch-underpricing the competition by half, charging only $55 for a 30-gram tube that lasts nearly two months.

The cultural history of skin whitening is well established, with fairness seen as a symbol of Japanese beauty dating back as early as 794 A.D., when aristocratic women stayed inside to avoid tanning, said a Kao spokesman. By contrast, tanned skin was characteristic of the lower classes toiling in rice paddies.

But more modern concerns have powered the category since 1980: fear of skin cancer caused by the weakening of the ozone layer.

Kao's product retards the process by which an enzyme called tyrosinase, located in the skin's cells, sets off the production of melanin, which causes freckles and blemishes. Kao's research found that the sun's rays cause body cells to secrete a substance that activates tyrosinase.

While Sofina inhibits darkening of the skin, it doesn't protect it from ultraviolet rays. Kao therefore sells a companion product called UV-Care as a sun shade.

The spokesman said the Japanese have become very concerned about skin cancer, which promotes sales of whiteners. But another, more elementary reason for the category's success is vanity.

Kao began marketing Sofina by distributing free samples nationally in Japan early this year. The company followed up with a TV and newspaper ad blitz both singling out Sofina's low price and the fact that the formula "has changed the theory of whitenings."

A 30-second spot shows a pale white woman's face with a voice-over noting that "results can be felt and seen after using one tube." Kao wouldn't name the agency.

Using the price strategy to undercut Shiseido, Kao expects a 10% share of the $1.5 billion market within a year. But it may have a long way to catch up: it is five years behind Shiseido in entering the market. The spokesman attributed the delay to a research and development holdup.M

Kao's whitening product joins a Japanese category booming from both cultural preferences and concern over skin cancer.

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