Terminal differentiation of epidermal keratinocytes is linked to transmembrane ion flux. Previously, we have shown that amiloride, an inhibitor of epithelial sodium channels, blocks synthesis of differentiation-specific proteins in normal human keratinocytes. Here, we have identified the specific subunits of amiloride-sensitive human epithelial sodium channels in relation to differentiation of cultured human keratinocytes, as well as to epidermal development. As assessed by northern hybridization, RNase protection assay, and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, transcripts encoding functional alpha and regulatory beta subunits of human epithelial sodium channels were expressed both in cultured keratinocytes and in epidermis at levels comparable with the kidney. The mRNA expression of both human epithelial sodium channel-alpha and -beta increased during calcium-induced keratinocyte differentiation. Whereas the beta subunit of human epithelial sodium channel was induced by elevated concentrations of calcium, the alpha subunit increased with duration of culture. The regulatory gamma subunit was less abundant but also expressed in epidermis. Both human epithelial sodium channel-alpha and -beta were localized throughout the nucleated layers of human adult epidermis, but these channels were not detected in early stages of fetal epidermal development. This co-ordinated expression of subunits suggests that epithelial sodium channels may play an important part in both epidermal differentiation and skin development, presumably by modulating ion transport required for epidermal terminal differentiation.