Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a common detergent known to cause irritation and inflammatory reactions in skin. SLS is also the most commonly used toothpaste detergent and has been related to intraoral adverse effects. However, its specific biological effects on the oral mucosa (OM) have not yet been identified. The objective of this study was to investigate the putative effects of SLS on human oral epithelium using a novel in vitro reconstructed three-dimensional cell culture model. Reconstructed human OM, generated from primary normal human oral keratinocytes and fibroblasts, was exposed to clinically relevant concentrations of SLS (range 0.015-1.5%). The cultured tissues were evaluated by histomorphometry, immunohistochemistry (Ki-67, epithelial (E)-cadherin, alpha6-, beta1-integrins, cleaved caspase-3) and the TUNEL method. Increased epithelial thickness, enhanced proliferation (Ki-67), a more pronounced expression of E-cadherin throughout all epithelial cell layers and single TUNEL-positive cells in the middle spinous cell layers were observed in cultures exposed to low concentrations (0.015%) of SLS. At exposure to higher SLS concentrations (>or=0.15%), epithelial thickness, cell proliferation and E-cadherin expression gradually decreased and in the central areas of exposed regions, cells detached from each other and underwent cell death. In conclusion, clinically relevant concentrations of SLS have dual effects on reconstituted human OM; although occasional cell death within the epithelium was also observed, the increased epithelial thickness, proliferation and E-cadherin expression induced at lower concentrations might be associated with a protective mucosal response, whereas at higher concentrations a more destructive type of reaction predominated.