Surface tissues of the body such as the skin and intestinal tract are in direct contact with the external environment and are thus continuously exposed to large numbers of microorganisms. To cope with the substantial microbial exposure, epithelial surfaces produce a diverse arsenal of antimicrobial proteins that directly kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms. In this Review, we highlight new advances in our understanding of how epithelial antimicrobial proteins protect against pathogens and contribute to microbiota-host homeostasis at the skin and gut mucosae. Further, we discuss recent insights into the regulatory mechanisms that control antimicrobial protein expression. Finally, we consider how impaired antimicrobial protein expression and function can contribute to disease.