Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the active substance in sunless tanning lotions reacts with the amino groups of proteins to form a brown-colored complex. This non-enzymatic glycation, known as the Maillard reaction, can also occur with free amino groups in DNA, raising the possibility that DHA may be genotoxic. To address this issue we investigated the effects of DHA on cell survival and proliferation of a human keratinocyte cell line, HaCaT. Dose- and time-dependent morphological changes, chromatin condensation, cytoplasmic budding and cell detachment were seen in cells treated with DHA. Several dead cells were observed after long-time (24 h) incubation with 25 mM DHA or more. Furthermore, an extensive decline in proliferation was observed 1 day after DHA exposure for 24 h. When applied in different concentrations (5-50 mM) and for different time periods (1, 3 or 24 h) DHA caused a G(2)/M block after the cyclin B(1) restriction point. Exit from this cell-cycle block was associated with massive apoptosis, as revealed by a clonogenic assay, TUNEL staining and electron microscopy. Furthermore, DHA caused DNA damage as revealed by the alkaline comet assay. Preincubation with antioxidants prevented the formation of DNA strand breaks. The DHA toxicity may be caused by direct redox reactions, with formation of ROS as the crucial intermediates. The genotoxic capacity of DHA raises a question about the long-term clinical consequences of treatment of the skin with this commonly used compound.