MOST OF US are never satisfied with our looks. Straight-haired people dream of having curly hair, and those with curly locks do everything they can to straighten them. The same goes for our complexion. Asian girls and women spend a fortune on products that whiten the skin, while Westerners hanker after a golden tan. It is human nature to always want what we do not have. But there are deeper issues at play in the skin envy debate. Suzanne Miao, executive editor of Eve magazine, says Asians prize pale skin because it seems high class. 'White skin means you have not been labouring in the fields all day. In Asia, people will do anything to lighten their skin,' said Ms Miao. They are even willing to run the risk of mercury poisoning. In May, two brands of skin-whitening cream were pulled off the shelves after they were found to contain mercury levels that were thousands of times above the safety limit. But such scares have not dented the demand for skin-whitening products, which make up 30 per cent of Hong Kong's cosmetics market. Ms Miao says most local teenagers are probably unaware of the roots of their perception; they just know that having a fair complexion is more desirable. 'Hong Kongers sometimes look down on mainland Chinese because of their darker skin. The thinking is: 'we're paler, therefore we are better',' she said. And advertising plays a big part in reinforcing those perceptions. Celebrities such as Canto-pop singer Sammi Cheng Sau-man and supermodel Qi Qi are paid a fortune to advertise skin-whitening products. Carrie Lai, a 21-year-old student, has been using skin-whitening cream since she was 15. 'The advertisements are everywhere. All my friends think that if we have whiter skin we will look prettier,' she said. A recent poll found that 68 per cent of Hong Kong men thought their girlfriend or wife would look more attractive with a lighter complexion. While Asian and black teenagers are slapping on the skin-whitener, Western teenagers are trying to get a healthy, outdoors look. 'They lie on the beach and fry, or the more sensible ones use fake tan,' said Ms Miao. Sunbathing comes with its own set of problems - skin cancer is a real risk, and scientists say 80 per cent of visible signs of ageing are caused by the sun. Anyone using skin-whitening cream is even more at risk from the sun's damaging UV rays. The creams work by bleaching the skin, clearing away the pigment which makes the skin more sensitive. The better whitening creams include sunscreen - SFP 15 offers the minimum protection. 'Whether you are using a whitening cream or are a sun worshipper, you should use a moisturiser with sunscreen every day,' said Ms Miao. 'People don't realise that just because they are not on a beach they need sunscreen. 'One year's cumulative sun exposure is the same as frying on a beach for a week,' she said.