Mammalian epidermis normally displays a distinctive calcium gradient, with low levels in the basal/spinous layers and high levels in the stratum granulosum. Although changes in stratum granulosum calcium regulate the lamellar body secretory response to permeability barrier alterations, whether modulations in calcium also regulate the expression of differentiation-specific proteins in vivo remains unknown. As acute barrier perturbations reduce calcium levels in stratum granulosum, we studied the regulation of murine epidermal differentiation after loss of calcium accompanying acute barrier disruption and by exposure of such acutely perturbed skin sites to either low (0.03 M) or high (1.8 M) calcium. Three hours after acute barrier disruption, coincident with reduced calcium and ultrastructural evidence of accelerated lamellar body secretion, both northern analyses and in situ hybridization revealed decreased mRNA levels for loricrin, profilaggrin, and involucrin in the outer epidermis, but protein levels did not change significantly. Moreover, exposure of acutely disrupted skin sites to low calcium solutions sustained the reduction in mRNA levels, whereas exposure to high calcium solutions restored normal mRNA levels (blocked by the L-type calcium channel inhibitor, nifedipine). Finally, with prolonged exposure to a low (<10% relative humidity) or high (>80% relative humidity) humidity, calcium levels increased and declined, respectively. Accordingly, mRNA and protein levels of the differentiation-specific markers increased and decreased at low and high relative humidity, respectively. These results provide direct evidence that acute and sustained fluctuations in epidermal calcium regulate expression of differentiation-specific proteins in vivo, and demonstrate that modulations in epidermal calcium coordinately regulate events late in epidermal differentiation that together form the barrier.