Although ceramides (Cers) are key constituents of the epidermal permeability barrier, they also function as apoptogenic signals for UVB irradiation-induced apoptosis in epidermal keratinocytes. As epidermis is continuously exposed to UV irradiation, we hypothesized that Cer hydrolysis protects keratinocytes from UVB-induced apoptosis by attenuating Cer levels. Both low-dose UVB (L-UVB) (< 35 mJ cm(-2)) and high-dose UVB (H-UVB) (> or = 45 mJ cm(-2)) irradiation inhibited DNA synthesis in cultured human keratinocytes, but apoptosis occurred only after H-UVB. Whereas Cer production increased after both L- and H-UVB, it normalized only in L-UVB-exposed keratinocytes, but remained elevated after H-UVB. Both acidic ceramidase (aCDase) and neutral ceramidase (nCDase) activities declined after L- and H-UVB, but returned to normal only in L-UVB cells, with decreased CDase activities or mRNA or protein levels being sustained in H-UVB cells. Inhibition of CDase using either a CDase inhibitor, N-oleoylethanolamine, or small interfering RNA (siRNA) (either to a- and/or n-CDase(s)) sensitized keratinocytes to L-UVB-induced apoptosis in parallel with further Cer accumulation. Blockade of sphingosine kinase 1 (SPHK1) (but not SPHK2) by siRNA also increased apoptosis in L-UVB keratinocytes, revealing that conversion of sphingosine to sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P) further protects keratinocytes from UVB-induced cell death. Thus, Cer → sphingosine → S1Pmetabolic conversion protects against UVB-induced, Cer-mediated apoptosis in keratinocytes, but excessive UVB overwhelms this mechanism, thereby leading to keratinocyte apoptosis.