The ultraviolet A (UVA, 320-400 nm) component of sunlight has the potential to generate an oxidative stress in cells and tissue so that antioxidants (both endogenous and exogenous) strongly influence the biological effects of UVA. The expression of several genes (including heme oxygenase-1, HO-1; collagenase; the CL100 phosphatase and the nuclear oncogenes, c-fos and c-jun) is induced following physiological doses of UVA to cells and this effect can be strongly enhanced by removing intracellular glutathione or enhancing singlet oxygen lifetime. We have observed that heme is released from microsomal heme-containing proteins by UVA and other oxidants and that activation of HO-1 expression by UVA correlates with levels of heme release. UVA radiation also leads to an increase in labile iron pools (either directly or via HO-1) and eventual increases in ferritin levels. The role of heme oxygenase in protection of skin fibroblasts is probably an emergency inducible defense pathway to remove heme liberated by oxidants. The slower increase in ferritin levels is an adaptive response which serves to keep labile iron pools low and thereby reduce Fenton chemistry and oxidant-induced chain reactions involving lipid peroxidation. In keratinocytes, the primary target of UVA radiation, heme oxygenase levels are constitutively high (because of HO-2 expression). Since there is a corresponding increase in basal levels of ferritin the epidermis appears to be well protected constitutively against the oxidative stress generated by UVA.