A heavy water ((2)H(2)O) labeling method recently developed to measure cell proliferation in vivo is applied here to the measurement of murine epidermal cell turnover and to investigate conditions in which keratinocyte proliferation is either inhibited or stimulated. The technique is based on incorporation of (2)H(2)O into the deoxyribose moiety of deoxyribonucleotides in dividing cells. Label incorporation and die-away studies in cells isolated from C57BL/6J mouse epidermis revealed the replacement rate to be 34%-44% per wk (half-life of 1.6-2 wk). The kinetics provided evidence of a non-proliferative subpopulation of cells (10%-15% of the total) within the epidermis. Topical administration of 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anthracene and 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate for 3 wk increased epidermal cell proliferation by 55% in SENCAR mice. Topical addition of lunasin, an anti-mitotic agent from soy, decreased epidermal cell proliferation modestly though significantly (16% given alone, 9% given with carcinogens). Caloric restriction (by 33% of energy intake) for 4 wk decreased the epidermal cell proliferation rate by 45% in C57BL/6J mice. In summary, epidermal cell proliferation can be measured in vivo using (2)H(2)O labeling in normal, hyper- and hypo-proliferative conditions. Potential applications of this inherently safe method in humans might include studies of psoriasis, wound healing, chemopreventive agents, and caloric intake.