Notice how personal care product makers have cleverly split the functions of a humble bar of soap into three particularly evolved product categories: hand wash, face wash and body wash? (Though this hasn’t affected soap sales, marketers claim.)

Of the three, hand wash may be the largest category, but it’s the face wash one that is buzzing the most, dominating media space and mind space—for marketers and consumers alike.

Last week, the products division of Dr Batra’s Positive Health Clinic—a chain of homeopathic clinics—entered the face wash category. It launched three face wash variants—Acne Clear (neem and tulsi extract), Instant Glow (with turmeric) and Moisturizing (with aloe vera). The product from a homeopathic doctor’s health business comes at a time when the category is sizzling with some 50 brands in the organized sector, all luring the consumer with catchy campaigns on mass media, especially television.

To add to the excitement, expensive brand ambassadors have been engaged by some companies to endorse their products. Saif Ali Khan can be seen promoting a charcoal-based Fair & Lovely face wash from Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) even as Alia Bhatt pushes the case for Garnier India. More recently, Kolkata-based personal care products firm Emami Ltd signed up Hrithik Roshan to market its Fair & Handsome face wash brand.

A former HUL employee recalls how Pond’s struggled to sell the company’s first face wash several years ago. There was no market for the product. Today, face wash is a 1,600 crore category, growing roughly at 15% a year. Aasritha Poorna, insights director at IMRB Kantar World Panel, said so far 2015 has been a landmark year for face wash, with its annual all-India penetration touching double digits at the end of March. It currently stands at 10.3%. This means that 10% of Indian households have purchased a pack of face wash at least once between April 2014 and March 2015. In urban India, face wash penetration is 14%. At an all-India level (urban+rural), the penetration is actually significant as it was difficult for marketers to create a need for face wash in households where a bar of soap was readily available, says Poorna.

IMRB Kantar World Panel is a strategic tie-up between IMRB International and Kantar Worldpanel to track household consumption in a range of product categories such as personal care and fast moving consumer goods, among others.

Experts in the sector admit that the skin care category, especially facial care, is profitable for companies. Per square inch, the face is the most profitable real estate in personal care. Companies can charge a premium for face products. Mohan Goenka, director at Emami, says that face care is followed by hair care and body care. So companies charge a premium for products in these categories in that order.

Why consumers buy face care products is easy to fathom. The face reflects one’s age, grooming, even social status. Taking care of it is important for women and increasingly for men. That explains the burst of face wash brands for men. There are at least six major men’s brands in the face wash category, which is growing at 55% a year.

A category such as face wash is also expanding because of growing consumer consciousness about beauty and grooming. Companies claim that product benefits and convenience are the other triggers. Face wash products promise functional benefits such as fairness, acne removal, anti-ageing, freshness and oil-free skin through components such as charcoal, neem, turmeric, lemon, sandalwood or even fruits like apricot and strawberry, among others.

Poorna says people have always been self-conscious about their appearance. But the difference is that there were no products addressing specific needs. People who used to follow home remedies are slowly adopting the innovations brought about in face wash products and marketers are doing their best to identify and target gaps.

Brand loyalty in this category is low. The consumer is experimenting and seeking something that will address his need or offers a greater promise. Consumers want to look good. So if a brand promises something different, they shift.

Marketers keep pushing newer formats, of course. The buzz is that to go deeper into the market and to improve sales, some face wash companies are toying with the idea of launching the product in a sachet. The idea is tricky as the product is expensive and for daily use, unlike, say, a once-a-week application of a shampoo sachet. Yet, it could definitely accelerate the current rate of 3% penetration of face wash products in rural India.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing, and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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