Exposure of the skin of the back of skh-1 hairless mice to UVB (310 nm peak) irradiation at doses of 0.115-0.23 J/cm2 results after 24-48 h in an erythema which can be quantified using an erythema meter, providing a useful model of sunburn. Application of pure d-alpha-tocopherol acetate, a thick oil, to the skin immediately following the exposure to UVB significantly reduces the increase in erythema index, by 40-55%. At the lower dose (0.115 J/cm2), skin thickness (associated with edematous swelling of the sunburned skin) was measured by a novel non-invasive technique not previously reported for this purpose--magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In two experiments the UVB-induced increase in skin thickness was significantly reduced at 24 hr by 29 and 54%, and at 48 hr by 26 and 61%. After 8 days the untreated irradiated mouse skin still showed a significant increase in thickness (24%) compared to the untreated unirradiated control, while the treated irradiated control was not significantly thicker than the unexposed control. Skin sensitivity was tested using a modification of the technique of esthesiometry, by observing rapid avoidance responses of the mouse to a pressure of 0.96 g/cm2 exerted by applying to the skin the tip of a nylon esthesiometer fiber extended to 60 mm in length. The untreated irradiated mice were more sensitive (p less than 0.07, Wilcoxon test) than the treated irradiated mice, and also significantly different from the untreated unirradiated control mice (p less than 0.04, Wilcoxon test), but the treated irradiated mice were not significantly differently sensitive when compared to the unirradiated controls (p less than 0.32). Taken together these data indicate that the erythema, edema, and skin sensitivity commonly associated with UVB-induced sunburn are significantly reduced by topical application of tocopherol acetate even after the exposure has occurred. This observation suggests that treatment of sunburn may be possible even after the irradiation has stopped, by a derivative of d-alpha-tocopherol which is stable to autooxidation.