Epidermal pigmentation involves the synthesis of melanin in melanocytes and its transfer to surrounding keratinocytes, where it functions in photoprotection. To investigate the possible role of the keratinocyte in regulating pigmentation, human keratinocytes were incubated for 24 h in a defined culture medium, which was then transferred to pure human melanocyte cultures. After 1 week, the conditioned medium produced a fourfold increase in melanocyte yield and a seven-fold increase in total melanin. Increased melanocyte dendricity was clearly visible within 24 h as well. Ultrafiltration of the keratinocyte-conditioned medium suggested approximately one-half of the growth promoting activity as well as most of the dendricity and melanization stimulating activities were of low molecular weight (less than 500 Da). High molecular weight fractions stimulated only melanocyte growth. Of the several known keratinocyte-derived factors tested, none could be implicated as a mediator of the observed effects. Basic fibroblast growth factor, known to stimulate melanocyte growth in some culture systems, failed to stimulate growth, dendricity, or melanin content when added to the complete non-conditioned medium. Interleukin-1 alpha, interleukin-1 beta, 12-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid, prostaglandin E2, leukotriene B4, and adenosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate analogues also had no effect. These studies demonstrate that keratinocytes in vitro release factors that modulate melanocyte behavior and expand our understanding of controls for human epidermal pigmentation.