The protective barrier provided by stratified squamous epithelia relies on the cornified cell envelope (CE), a structure synthesized at late stages of keratinocyte differentiation. It is composed of structural proteins, including involucrin, loricrin, and the small proline-rich (SPRR) proteins, all encoded by genes localized at human chromosome 1q21. The genetic characterization of the SPRR locus reveals that the various members of this multigene family can be classified into two distinct groups with separate evolutionary histories. Whereas group 1 genes have diverged in protein structure and are composed of three different classes (SPRR1 (2x), SPRR3, and SPRR4), an active process of gene conversion has counteracted diversification of the protein sequences of group 2 genes (SPRR2 class, seven genes). Contrasting with this homogenization process, all individual members of the SPRR gene family show specific in vivo and in vitro expression patterns and react selectively to UV irradiation. Apparently, creation of regulatory rather than structural diversity has been the driving force behind the evolution of the SPRR gene family. Differential regulation of highly homologous genes underlines the importance of SPRR protein dosage in providing optimal barrier function to different epithelia, while allowing adaptation to diverse external insults.