Topical application of alpha-tocopherol (alphaTH), the most prominent naturally occurring form of vitamin E, inhibits ultraviolet (UV) B-induced photocarcinogenesis and DNA photodamage in C3H mice in vivo. In this study, we compared alphaTH with other vitamin E compounds and with three commercial sunscreen compounds for their ability to inhibit DNA photodamage in C3H mouse skin in vivo. When applied in a 5% dispersion in a neutral cream vehicle, alpha-tocopherol (alphaTH), gamma-tocopherol (gammaTH), and delta-tocopherol (deltaTH) each produced a statistically significant inhibition of thymine dimer formation, whereas alpha-tocopherol acetate (alphaTAc) and alpha-tocopherol methyl ether (alphaTOMe) did not. Application of 5% dispersions of the commercial sunscreen agent octylmethoxycinnamate also inhibited dimer formation, whereas ethylhexyl salicylate and oxybenzone did not, despite their considerably greater UVB absorbances than alphaTH. To test the hypothesis that cellular uptake and distribution are necessary for optimal photoprotection by tocopherols, photoprotection was studied in mouse 308 keratinocyte cells in vitro. Preincubation of 308 cells with 1 microM alphaTH for at least 2 h before exposure to 2.5 J/m2/s UVB for 10 min significantly (P < 0.05) attenuated thymine dimer formation. Pre-incubation with 1 microM gammaTH, deltaTH, alphaTAc, or alphaTOMe for 2 h did not inhibit thymine dimer formation significantly. Uptake of alphaTH was measured after incubation with 1 microM [2H3]alphaTH (d3-alphaTH) and resulted in a time-dependent increase in alphaTH levels. Use of d3-alphaTH allowed separate, simultaneous measurement of added d3-alphaTH and unlabeled endogenous alphaTH by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Accumulation of 167 +/- 62 pmol d3-alphaTH/mg protein was measured within 1 h in whole-cell fractions. d3-AlphaTH in the nuclear fraction reached levels of 15 +/- 4 pmol d3-alphaTH/mg protein at 2 h. Accumulation of alphaTH in the whole cell and nuclei corresponded temporally with significant protection against DNA photodamage. The kinetics of accumulation of the three tocopherols in whole cells and in nuclei were similar. Although only alphaTH conferred significant protection compared with irradiated controls at 2 h, the differences between individual tocopherols were not statistically significant. This work suggests that incorporation of tocopherol compounds into sunscreen products confers protection against procarcinogenic DNA photodamage and that cellular uptake and distribution of tocopherol compounds is necessary for their optimal photoprotection.