EIGHTY per cent of all the visible signs of an ageing skin are caused by exposure to the sun. It was first thought that sun exposure merely contributed to the ageing process, but as research improves it has become apparent that deep wrinkling, age spots and hard skin has little to do with growing old and a good deal to do with sun exposure. The most frightening aspect is your skin may appear youthful and unaffected for years, then suddenly deteriorate over six months. It is never too late to start protecting your skin. Depending on the damage caused, sun-induced ageing can be repaired naturally by the skin. Asian skin is more resilient to the strong rays but also requires a high protection factor or even a sunscreen. The daily use of a sunscreen builds a defence barrier against future sun damage, while allowing previous damage to undergo natural repairs. There are also many myths that need to be expelled about sunbathing: Forget the notion you can obtain a safe tan - it is never safe. What you can do, however, is tan in the safest possible way. High sun-protection factors do not stop you getting a tan, they prevent ageing and help prevent cancer. Research has shown that factor eight and factor 25, used over the same period of time, can produce the same colour but the factor 25 tan will last longer. Never allow your skin to burn. Sun tanning has nothing to do with sun burning which peels anyway. The tone of your tan is genetically pre-determined, you will not necessarily deepen it by staying out in the sun longer. Wear sunglasses with adequate ultra-violet A and B filters as melanomas also develop in the eyes. Leading Hongkong dermatologist Dr Samuel Leung said Asian skin was more pigmented and incidence of skin cancer was quite low. ''Asian women prefer white skin over tanned skin. The long-term exposure is not a problem,'' he said. Dr Leung said the extent of ageing through exposure to the sun depended on skin types and colours. ''Skin can repair itself. Everyone has his or her own healing process which is natural. But it depends on how badly the skin is damaged.'' Dr Leung said the sun in Hongkong was strong and advised Westerners to be careful. ''It depends which region of the world they have sprung from. If they come from Scandinavia, for example, they would have to be very careful. ''For Hongkong people who are used to the sun, factor eight would be adequate or even number six. ''Someone who falls into category two would need a 15 factor - or something above 20. The general rule is if they are coming from the northern part of the world the greater protection is required.'' When selecting your sun protection cream you should be protected from UVA and B rays. Another way to become brown is from a bottle. Most sun care ranges by the leading cosmetic firms include self-tanning lotions. Most are easy to use and promise a true colour that fades evenly. Self tans work best on existing tans. Below, the Sunday Morning Post tests Hongkong's leading brands for smell, texture and content. ELIZABETH ARDEN ELIZABETH Arden's Spa for the Sun and Spa for the Face provide protection without sacrificing your skin. The range includes Sunmist Oil-free Sunscreen (SPF15), Sheltering Waterproof Sun Block (SPF 35), and Sunwear Daily Protector (SPF 15). The Sunmist oil-free sunscreen contains plant extracts to calm, soothe and protect the skin. The waterproof sun-block lasts for up to one hour after swimming. Arden's Sunwear product is excellent for use under make-up or used alone to shield the skin from UVB and UVA light. Verdict: High-quality products providing protection without chemical sunscreens. LANCOME WITH Lancome's patented formula of Pure Melanin, this brand offers a new dimension in protection. By replicating the skin's natural way of tanning, Pure Melanin is able to neutralise elements which cause premature ageing. The 1993 sun care range of 12 products combines Pure Melanin with extracts of camomile and cornflower to soothe and calm; a gentle moisturiser to stop the drying effects of sun, salt and wind; Vitamin E to counteract skin damage, and filters potentially harmful UVA and UVB rays. Verdict: A luxurious range of products most of which are light and milky to apply. All have a gentle and pleasant smell. SHIESIDO SHISEIDO sun care features UV-ray absorbers of SPF8-35. The scientifically developed skin care ingredients include EPC-K, Shiseido's exclusive compound of vitamins E and C. It is moisture-enriched with botanical extracts to soothe and comfort the skin. The range comes in a choice of formulas and textures for every skin type. Also in the range is a trio of after-sun treatments including soothing gel, moisturising emulsion and recovery cream. Verdict: Delicate smell but heavy, sticky texture. A good line of defence from harmful rays. CLARINS CLARINS has 13 products, each with its role for every tanning need and skin type. They consist of two high-protection treatments of factors 25 and 19, six tanning treatments ranging from factor 12 to 3, three self-tanning products and two after-sun treatments. Verdict: Smooth, light textures. ESTEE LAUDER ESTEE Lauder's sun protections contain its Exclusive Special Protection Complex (SPC). It is not a sunscreen, but a blend of ingredients of antioxidants to provide more effective action than formulas containing the most widely used antioxidant, Vitamin E. SPC can neutralise up to 90 per cent of the free radicals released by sun exposure before they can contribute to lines, wrinkles and loss of elasticity. Recommended by the US Skin Cancer Foundation. Verdict: Expensive but exotic. THE BODY SHOP SUNCARE range has a collection of six products providing moisturising benefits with built-in protection from UVA and UVB rays. It combines three of the world's approved sunscreens. Watermelon has been selected because of its natural benefits - it refreshes, cools and moisturises the skin. It is also rich in vitamins A and C and is high in polysaccharides, a complex of starches and sugars which helps the skin retain moisture. Verdict: Smells so good you could almost eat it. CLINIQUE THIS is probably one of the most extensive ranges available with about 14 products. Clinique is committed to sun care protection and even has sun buffer lipsticks in factor 15, crayons (factor 25) for the eye and ear areas and a hand cream containing SPF 6. The latest product is brush-on Sun Oil-Free Powder in two sunny shades which gives a sun-kissed look without the risk of sun exposure. Clinique, along with Estee Lauder, has received the US Skin Cancer Foundation's seal of recommendation. Verdict: Well worth the investment, excellent products that meet strict criteria for safety and effectiveness.