1. Cells were dispersed from human foreskin using a mixture of collagenase and hyaluronidase and separated into mast cell-depleted (less than 1%) or enriched (greater than 75%) preparations by density-gradient centrifugation. 2. Challenge of gradient fractions with epsilon-chain-specific anti-human IgE stimulated the release of histamine, prostaglandin D2 (PGD2) and leukotriene C4 (LTC4). The release of eicosanoids was significantly correlated with that of histamine, suggesting that they are derived from the mast cell population of the dispersate. In highly purified (76.2 +/- 4.2%) mast cell preparations, maximum net release of histamine, PGD2 and LTC4 was 3432 +/- 725, 84.9 +/- 10.8 and 6.6 +/- 1.2 pmol/10(6) nucleated cells. 3. The non-immunological stimuli substance P, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), somatostatin, compound 48/80, morphine and poly-L-lysine released similar amounts of histamine to anti-IgE, but 12 to 21 fold less PGD2 and LTC4. 4. These studies suggest that IgE-dependent and non-immunological stimuli activate human skin mast cells by different secretory mechanisms, a hypothesis supported by our previous findings of differences in Ca2+ requirements and time-course of histamine release. Activation by the non-immunological mechanism may be of importance in vivo due to the close anatomical association between skin mast cells and dermal nerve-terminals containing neuropeptides.