Adaptation of the skin to repeated influence of exogenous irritants is called the hardening phenomenon. We investigated the stratum corneum lipid composition before and after induction of a hardening phenomenon. Irritant contact dermatitis was induced in 23 non-atopic volunteers by repeated occlusive application of 0.5% sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) over 3 weeks. At 3, 6 and 9 weeks after irritation, the SLS responses of pre-irritated skin and normal skin were compared. The horny layer lipid composition (ceramides 1-7, cholesterol and free fatty acids) was assessed before irritation and 3, 6 and 9 weeks after irritation. During the first 2 weeks of irritation the transepidermal water loss increased continuously and seemed to decrease during the third week (effect of adaptation). The barrier function of pre-irritated sites was more stable to SLS challenge. Three weeks after irritation, there was a significant increase of ceramide 1 (p<0.001). The only volunteer without hardening phenomenon showed no increase of ceramide 1. Ceramide 1 seems to play a key role as a protection mechanism against repeated irritation.