Patients with atopic dermatitis (AD) often present with a dry skin. To clarify the relationship between dry skin and lipid abnormalities within stratum corneum, stratum corneum lipids were collected from six AD patients aged 15 to 25 years and from sex- and age-matched controls. All major stratum corneum lipid classes were separated and quantitated by high-performance thin-layer chromatography/photodensitometry. Six ceramide fractions were also isolated and quantitated by thin-layer chromatography/photodensitometry. Esterified fatty acids of both ceramide 1 (acylceramides) and wax esters were analysed by capillary gas chromatography. The relative amounts of all the stratum corneum lipid classes including squalene, cholesterol esters, wax esters, triglycerides, free fatty acids, cholesterol, ceramides, cholesterol sulphate and phospholipids did not differ statistically between AD patients and controls. However, a significant decrease in proportion of ceramide 1, which is believed to be a carrier of linoleate responsible for a water-barrier function, and increased levels of esterified C18:1 fatty acids (oleate) of ceramide 1 were observed in AD patients. On the other hand, the fatty acid compositions as well as the proportions of C16:1 straight-chain component in sebum wax esters of AD patients were very similar to those of controls. These results suggest that a significantly reduced amount and/or structural alterations of ceramide 1 deriving from epidermal keratinocytes may be responsible for the impaired water-barrier function of the skin in AD.