Environmental stimuli responsible for inducing cutaneous inflammation include contact allergens and ultraviolet light. We postulate that these diverse stimuli trigger a cutaneous inflammatory response by directly inducing epidermal keratinocytes to elaborate specific pro-inflammatory cytokines and adhesion molecules. The consequences are activation of dermal microvascular endothelial cells and selective accumulation of specific mononuclear cells in the dermis and epidermis. Thus, keratinocytes may act as "signal transducers", capable of converting exogenous stimuli into the production of cytokines, adhesion molecules, and chemotactic factors (acting in an autocrine and paracrine fashion) responsible for initiation of "antigen-independent" cutaneous inflammation. The initiation phase may facilitate or promote an amplification phase with additional production of tumour-necrosis factor alpha and interferon gamma via an "antigen-dependent" pathway, and keratinocyte/T cell/antigen-presenting dendritic cellular associations. The direct activation of keratinocytes, with their ability to produce the complete repertoire of pro-inflammatory cytokines, can profoundly influence endogenous and recruited immunocompetent cells, thereby providing the critical trigger responsible for the swift and clinically dramatic alterations that occur following contact between the epidermis and a host of "noxious" agents.