Mast cells (MC) are multipotent effector cells of the immune system. They contain an array of biologically active mediator substances in their granules. MC also express a number of functionally important cell surface antigens, including stem cell factor receptor (SCFR=kit=CD117), high affinity IgER (FcepsilonRI), or CSaR (CD88). Respective ligands can induce or promote degranulation, migration, or cytokine production. Other integral surface molecules can mediate adhesion or cell aggregation. Recent data suggest that a number of critical molecules are variably expressed on the surface of human MC. In fact, depending on the environment (organ), stage of cell maturation, type of disease, and other factors, MC express variable amounts of activation-linked antigens (CD25, CD63, CD69, CD88), cell recognition molecules (CD2, CD11, CD18, CD50, CD54), or cytokine receptors. At present, however, little is known about the mechanisms and regulation of expression of such antigens. The present article gives an overview of MC phenotypes in health and disease, and attempts to provide explanations for the phenotypic variability of MC.