To study the mode of action of moisturizers on human skin, hydrophilic moisturizers in water and neat lipophilic moisturizers were applied on excised skin for 24 h at 32 degrees C. Samples of the treated skin were subsequently visualized in a cryoscanning electron microscope. The stratum corneum (SC) appeared as a region of swollen corneocytes (the swollen region) sandwiched between two layers of relatively dry corneocytes (the upper and lower non-swelling regions respectively). Lipophilic moisturizers increased the water content of the SC, whereas hydrophilic moisturizers can also reduce the water content of the SC. When focusing on the effect of the moisturizers on the three different regions, it was observed that cells in the swelling region are most sensitive to the application of the moisturizers and that the change in SC thickness is most influenced by the change in the thickness of the swelling region. Summarizing, SC cells are not equally sensitive to moisturizer application: centrally located corneocytes are more sensitive than corneocytes in the upper and the lowest regions of the SC.