Ceramides are the dominant component of the stratum corneum intercellular lipid lamellae, which constitute the epidermal permeability barrier. Only pig and human epidermal ceramides have been extensively characterized and the structures of the ceramides of cultured keratinocytes have not been previously investigated. In the present studies, we have characterized the ceramides synthesized by organotypic lifted mouse keratinocyte cultures for the first time and compared them to the ceramides of intact mouse epidermis. Both mouse epidermis and cultures contained five ceramides, ceramide 1 being the least polar and ceramide 5 the most polar. Ceramide 1 was a group of acylceramides, i.e., very-long-chain omega-hydroxyceramides with an ester-linked nonhydroxy fatty acid. Ceramide 2 contained medium-length saturated nonhydroxy fatty acids. (In culture, the ceramide 2 band was split into two parts with the slightly more polar ceramide 2' containing short-chain saturated nonhydroxy fatty acids.) Ceramide 5 contained short-chain alpha-hydroxy fatty acids. The structures of ceramides 1, 2, and 5 were analagous to those of pig and human epidermis. Mouse epidermal ceramide 3 was quite unusual, containing beta-hydroxy fatty acids, a structure not previously identified among mammalian ceramides. In contrast, culture ceramide 3 was composed of omega-hydroxy fatty acids with a chain-length distribution similar to that of ceramide 1. Mouse ceramide 4 was composed of fatty acids with chromatographic mobility similar to hydroxy fatty acids but with different chemical reactivity; it remains only partially characterized. Culture ceramide 4 was present in quantities too small for analysis. All ceramides in mouse epidermis and cultures contained only sphingosine bases, whereas pig and human ceramides also contain phytosphingosine. These results indicate that considerable diversity of ceramide structures occurs among mammalian species and that cultured keratinocytes may only partially reproduce the in vivo complement of ceramides. Using labeled serine in keratinocyte cultures, we have also demonstrated the de novo synthesis of ceramides and the transfer of label from glucosylceramides to ceramides during terminal differentiation of lifted cultures. The covalently bound corneocyte lipid envelope, which has recently been characterized in pig and human epidermis, was also present in mouse epidermis and was reproduced by the lifted cultures. Very-long-chain omega-hydroxyceramides were the dominant bound lipid and labeling studies in culture indicated that they were derived from ceramides synthesized in the viable epidermis.