The salivary cortisol concentration is an excellent indicator of the plasma free cortisol concentration. To establish its normal and pathological ranges, salivary cortisol concentrations were measured in 101 normal adults, 18 patients with Cushing's syndrome, and 21 patients with adrenal insufficiency. The normal subjects had a mean (+/- SEM) salivary cortisol concentration of 15.5 +/- 0.8 nmol/L (range, 10.2-27.3) at 0800 h and 3.9 +/- 0.2 nmol/L (range, 2.2-4.1) at 2000 h (n = 20). The mean value 60 min after ACTH administration in 58 normal subjects was 52.2 +/- 2.2 nmol/L (range, 23.5-99.4), and it was 1.4 +/- 1.1 nmol/L (range, 1.6-3) at 0800 h in 23 normal subjects given 1 mg dexamethasone 8 h earlier. In patients with primary or secondary adrenal insufficiency (n = 21) the mean salivary cortisol level was 7.5 +/- 0.4 nmol/L (range, 1.9-21.8) 60 min after ACTH. In patients with Cushing's syndrome (n = 7), the mean value after the 1-mg dexamethasone suppression test was 16.1 +/- 7.8 nmol/L (range, 5.8-66.8). No overlap was found between the values in the normal subjects and those in the patients during the dynamic tests. Discrepancies between salivary and total plasma cortisol were found in 8 patients with adrenal insufficiency, which may be explained by the effects of drugs such as thyroid hormones, Op'-dichlorodiphenyldichloroethane, and psychotropic agents. We conclude that salivary cortisol measurements are an excellent index of plasma free cortisol concentrations. They circumvent the physiological, pathological, and pharmacological changes due to corticosteroid-binding globulin alterations and offer a practical approach to assess pituitary-adrenal function.