Women across Asia are snapping up skin whitening products in the belief that fair skin improves their appearance and boosts their job prospects.

From soaps to lotions and deodorants, women in Asia are buying beauty products that promise to make their skin lighter.

The consumer research company Synovate found that 38 percent or more of women surveyed in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan use skin whitening products. This is an increase from 34 percent two years ago.

Daisy Sam, associate director of Synovate in Hong Kong, says the demand is driven by a perception that fairer skin is more attractive. "If you have lighter skin, you look younger, because whiter skin can cover wrinkles, dark spots, and you look clean," she said. "White is equal to clean."

For centuries, wealthy women in Asia have avoided the sun, which can damage skin, leading to wrinkles.

As a result, says Karen Joe Laidler, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong, a light complexion in China indicated higher social status. "Because it's those who toil in the fields, who have dark skin," she said. "So having fair skin is a reflection of being among the more wealthy classes."

Many Asian women see having fair skin as a way of improving their status, and are willing to spend money to keep their faces pale.

Shirley is a Chinese public relations specialist in her early 30's and works in Hong Kong. She says having a darker complexion may hurt her job prospects. She thinks that in Hong Kong there is quite a lot of discrimination against people with darker skins.

Euromonitor International, a company that provides market analysis, says the skin care market in the Asia-Pacific region topped $11 billion in 2001. Skin whitening products make up the largest portion of that market.

Fytokem Products is a Canadian company that makes ingredients used in skin whitening products sold worldwide.

A Fytokem report from last year estimates China's market for skin whitening products is worth more than $1 billion. Japan's market topped $5 billion three years ago. The products have become so popular that in the past decade, major Western cosmetic companies have jumped into the market.

Market research company AC Nielsen says that cosmetic companies Max Factor, Olay, and Shiseido combined spent more than $12 million on advertising last year in Hong Kong alone.

Some products contain hydroquinone, which suppresses the production of melanin -- the natural dark pigment found in skin and hair.

Other whiteners contain alpha hydroxy acid, which the makers claim lightens the complexion by peeling off dead skin cells. Health officials in Hong Kong consider both hydroquinone and alpha hydroxy acid products safe in modest amounts, although in some users they cause dry skin, itching and other mild irritations.

Some skin whitening products, however, are considered dangerous.

In Hong Kong, Chinese University researchers found eight creams exceeded safety limits for mercury, which can damage the central nervous system and kidneys, and cause birth defects.

All eight brands came from China or Taiwan. The researchers warned there could be other dangerous products on store shelves.

Despite the boom in skin whitener sales, some experts think the fad will pass.

Habibul Khondker, a sociology professor at the Singapore National University, says that globalization has given people greater exposure to the world. He says that consequently many people in India, a major market for skin whiteners, now focus less on skin color. "I think the segment of Indian society has moved to that kind of open society that you are not judged by your skin color but by the contents of your character," he said.

But others fear the mass media may reinforce the use of whiteners. Many of the top women celebrities in Asia have fair skin -- and many serve as models for major product lines.