Isoflavones derived from many edible plants have been reported to possess significant antioxidant, estrogenic and tyrosine kinase inhibitory activity. Genistein has been found previously to provide protection from oxidative damage induced by UV radiation both in vitro and following dietary administration. We have therefore examined the potential of a number of isoflavones from red clover (Trifolium pratense) and some metabolically related compounds to offer protection from UV irradiation in hairless mice by topical application after UV exposure. We show that whereas the primary isoflavones, daidzein, biochanin A and formononetin, were inactive, 20 microM lotions of genistein and the metabolites equol, isoequol and the related derivative dehydroequol had powerful potential to reduce the inflammatory edema reaction and the suppression of contact hypersensitivity induced by moderate doses of solar-simulated UV radiation. For equol the protection was concentration dependent and 5 microM equol markedly reduced the UV-induced inflammation but abrogated the UV-induced immunosuppression. Equol protected similarly from immunosuppression induced by the putative epidermal mediator, cis-urocanic acid (UCA), indicating a potential mechanism of action involving inactivation of this UV-photoproduct. Since immunosuppression induced by both UV radiation and by cis-UCA appears to be an oxidant-dependent response our observations support the actions of these topically applied isoflavones and their metabolites as antioxidants. They also indicate that lotions containing equol, unlike topical UV sunscreens, more readily protect the immune system from photosuppression than from the inflammation of the sunburn reaction, even when applied after exposure, and thus such compounds may have a future role as sun-protective cosmetic ingredients.