Total protein kinase C (PKC) activity in human skin fibroblasts increases during in vivo aging as a function of the donor's age. During in vitro aging protein kinase C activity is also increased, as a function of cell passage number. Using PKC isoform specific antibodies, we demonstrate that the increase in total PKC activity is mainly due to the PKC a isoform. PKC alpha protein expression increased up to 8 fold during in vivo aging. Collagenase (MMP-1) gene transcription and protein expression also increased with age, concomitant with the increase in protein kinase C alpha. Furthermore, alpha-tocopherol, which inhibits protein kinase C activity, is able to diminish collagenase gene transcription without altering the level of its natural inhibitor, tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase, TIMP-1. We propose that an aging program leads to increased protein kinase C alpha expression and activity. This event would induce collagenase overexpression followed by increased collagen degradation. Our in vitro experiments with skin fibroblasts suggest that alpha-tocopherol may protect against skin aging by decreasing the level of collagenase expression, which is induced by environmental insults and by aging.