The complexity of immune response-associated cells present in normal human skin was recently redefined as the skin immune system (SIS). In the present study, the exact immunophenotypes of lymphocyte subpopulations with their localizations in normal human skin were determined quantitatively. B cells were not found to be present in normal human skin. Lymphocytes were always of T-cell type, and 90% of these T cells were clustered in 1-3 rows around postcapillary venules of the papillary vascular plexus or adjacent to cutaneous appendages. In such perivascular localizations, they were found to differ from their circulating counterparts in three ways. First, skin perivascular cells were found to be approximately evenly distributed over CD4+ inducer and CD8+ suppressor-cytotoxic T-cell subsets (mean CD4/CD8 ratio: papillary layer 0.96, reticular layer 0.99). Second, within the category of CD4+ inducer T cells, most were phenotyped as CD4+, 4B4+ helper inducer T lymphocytes, whereas CD4+, 2H4+ suppressor inducer T lymphocytes were found to be relatively rare (less than 5%). Third, the majority of skin perivascular T cells were activated as they expressed HLA-DR and interleukin 2 receptors. Intraepidermal, directly subepidermal, and other ("free") lymphocytes were mostly of the CD8+ suppressor-cytotoxic T-cell subset but accounted for less than 10% of the total number of lymphocytes. Intraepidermally localized T cells accounted for less than 2% of the total number of lymphocytes present in normal skin. Our results indicate that preferential perivascular localization of activated T lymphocytes is the characteristic of normal human skin. This might be a reflection of continuous antigen recognition upon endothelial cell presentation and/or continuous T cell-mediated endothelial cell activation thereby inducing enhanced antigen clearing by the skin's endothelium.