Clinical and histologic similarities between various eczematous disorders point to a common efferent pathway. We demonstrate here that activated T cells infiltrating the skin in atopic dermatitis (AD) and allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) induce keratinocyte (KC) apoptosis. KCs normally express low levels of Fas receptor (FasR) that can be substantially enhanced by the presence of IFN-gamma. KCs are rendered susceptible to apoptosis by IFN-gamma when FasR numbers reach a threshold of approximately 40,000 per KC. Subsequently, KCs undergo apoptosis induced by anti-FasR mAb's, soluble Fas ligand, supernatants from activated T cells, or direct contact between T cells and KCs. Apoptotic KCs show typical DNA fragmentation and membrane phosphatidylserine expression. KC apoptosis was demonstrated in situ in lesional skin affected by AD, ACD, and patch tests. Using numerous cytokines and anti-cytokine neutralizing mAb's, we found no evidence that cytokines other than IFN-gamma participate in this process. In addition, apoptosis-inducing pathways other than FasR triggering were ruled out by blocking T cell-induced KC apoptosis by caspase inhibitors and soluble Fas-Fc protein. Responses of normal human skin and cultured skin equivalents to activated T cells demonstrated that KC apoptosis caused by skin-infiltrating T cells is a key event in the pathogenesis of eczematous dermatitis.