The activation of receptor complexes containing glycoprotein 130 (gp130) identifies the interleukin (IL)-6 cytokine family. We examined members of this family for their expression and activity in hair follicles. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction using mRNA derived from microdissected, anagen-stage human hair follicles and comparison to non-follicular skin epithelium revealed higher levels of IL-6 (15.5-fold) and oncostatin M (OSM, 3.4-fold) in hair follicles. In contrast, expression of all mRNAs coding for IL-6 cytokine family receptors was reduced. Immunohistology suggested expression of OSM, gp130, leukaemia inhibitory factor receptor (LIFr) and IL-11r in the hair follicle root sheaths and dermal papilla, while IL-11, IL-6r and OSMr were expressed in root sheaths alone. IL-6 was expressed in the dermal papilla while cardiotrophin-1 (CT-1) and LIF were not observed. OSM and to a lesser extent CT-1 exhibited a dose-dependent growth inhibition capacity on human hair follicles in vitro. OSM and CT-1 incubated with agarose beads and injected subcutaneously at 1 mug per mouse into telogen skin of 65-day-old mice revealed no capacity to induce anagen hair growth. In contrast, injection of 65-day-old mice in which anagen had been induced by hair plucking revealed a moderate hair growth inhibitory capacity for OSM, but no significant effect for CT-1. The data identify OSM as a modulator of hair follicle growth and suggest other family members may also have some degree of hair growth inhibitory effect. In principle, increased expression of some IL-6 cytokine family members in cutaneous inflammation might contribute to the promotion of hair loss.