Human tear prealbumin, now called tear lipocalin, was originally described as a major protein of human tear fluid, which was thought to be tear specific. However, recent investigations demonstrated that it is identical with lingual von Ebner's gland protein, and is also produced in prostate, nasal mucosa and tracheal mucosa. Homologous proteins have been found in rat, pig and probably dog and horse. Tear lipocalin is an unusual lipocalin member, because of its high promiscuity for relative insoluble lipids and binding characteristics that differ from other members. In addition, it shows inhibitory activity on cysteine proteinases similar to cystatins, a feature unique among lipocalins. Although it acts as the principal lipid binding protein in tear fluid, a more general physiological function has to be proposed due to its wide distribution and properties. It would be ideally suited for scavenging of lipophilic, potentially harmful substances and thus might act as a general protection factor of epithelia.