Ceramides, which are produced from the hydrolysis of sphingomyelin or synthesized from serine and palmitate in a de novo pathway, are regarded as important cellular signals for inducing apoptosis. However, controversy over this proposed role of ceramides exists. Using stable isotope labelling coupled with GC (gas chromatography)-MS and mass isotopomer distribution analysis, we have studied the metabolism of exogenous long-chain ceramides in HL60 cells. Our results do not support the concept of enhanced ceramide transport into cells induced by solvent mixtures of ethanol and hydrocarbons. In addition, cell toxicity does not correlate with the amount of intact ceramide in the cells. Our results are more consistent with a disturbance of sphingomyelin metabolism induced by the solvent mixture. The characteristics of this disturbed sphingolipid disposition are the inhibition of dihydroceramide desaturation and an enhanced degradation of sphingomyelin. As a consequence, dihydroceramides accumulate and the cellular sphingomyelin content decreases. Inhibition of these pathways is most likely to be induced by the increased production of novel ceramide metabolites instead of by intact ceramides. Octadecane-1,2-diol is identified as a possible mediator. Treatments that divert ceramide degradation to the novel pathway are potential strategies in cancer therapy for inducing cell toxicity.