The delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction (DHR) in human skin is prototypic for many inflammatory dermatoses. However the cellular events that precede gross lesion formation are unknown. In this study, inflammatory cell populations and adhesion molecule expression in early phases of DHR elicited by 2,4-dinitrochlorobenzene were evaluated. The first discernible event (at 1 hour) was mast cell degranulation, followed by induction of endothelial leukocyte adhesion molecule (ELAM-1) expression on dermal postcapillary venules at 2 hours. Endothelial leukocyte adhesion molecule expression peaked at 24 hours and declined by 48 hours. In contrast, endothelial expression of intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) remained at constitutive levels. Intrafollicular T-cell migration occurred independent of ICAM-1 expression and commenced as early as 4 hours after challenge. Mature, activated CD4-positive lymphocytes that expressed a helper-inducer/memory phenotype predominated in early lesions. These results demonstrate in vivo that mast cell degranulation, ELAM-1 expression, and memory T-cell-follicular interactions are key events in subclinical evolutionary stages of cutaneous DHR.