Previous studies of cultured skin cells and murine skin in vivo have indicated that UVR-induced damage involves the generation of reactive oxygen species and depletion of endogenous antioxidant systems. In order to explore the relevance of this to UVR-induced damage to human skin, we have undertaken a detailed examination of the time-course of changes in markers of oxidative stress in human skin following exposure to physiological amounts of UVR in vivo. In addition, we have examined the skin bioavailability of a common nutritional antioxidant, vitamin C, and have assessed the effects of supplementation on markers of oxidative stress. Our hypothesis was that acute exposure of human skin to UVR in vivo would lead to oxidation of cellular biomolecules that could be prevented by prior vitamin C treatment. A UVR-challenge of 120 mJ/cm2 of broadband UVB (peak 310 nm, range 270-400 nm) was applied to buttock skin of 8 healthy volunteers. This caused a rapid and significant rise in activity of skin catalase at 1 h and an increase in the oxidized/total glutathione ratio at 6 h post-UVR. AP-1 DNA binding also peaked at 1-6 h post-UVR, then declined rapidly to baseline levels. No significant changes were seen in skin malonaldehyde content. Oral vitamin C supplements (500 mg/day) were taken by 12 volunteers for 8 weeks resulting in significant rises in plasma and skin vitamin C content. Supplementation had no effect on the UVR-induced erythemal response. The skin malonaldehyde content was reduced by vitamin C supplementation, but surprisingly, reductions in the skin content of total glutathione and protein thiols were also seen. We speculate that this apparently paradoxical effect could be due to regulation of total reductant capacity by skin cells, such that vitamin C may have been replacing other reductants in these cells. No evidence was obtained for an effect of the supplementary vitamin C on the mild oxidative stress seen in human skin following UVR exposure.