Filaggrin is a specific epidermal protein which is the precursor of the free amino acids, urocanic acid and pyrrolidone carboxylic acid which are largely responsible for the ability of the stratum corneum of the skin to remain hydrated at low environmental humidity. The distribution of filaggrin shown by immunofluorescence in the stratum corneum of the rat changed dramatically during the first hours of postnatal life. During late foetal development, filaggrin accumulated through the entire thickness of the stratum corneum, indicating that there was a block on the subsequent processing of the protein which normally would convert it to free amino acids. Immediately after birth this block was lifted and normal proteolysis of the filaggrin took place in the outer part of the stratum corneum, leaving the normal adult pattern of a thin zone of cells containing filaggrin at the bottom of the stratum corneum. This activation of filaggrin proteolysis was dependent on the drop in external water activity caused by the transition from an aqueous environment in utero to a dryer environment after birth and it could be blocked by maintaining a 100% humidity atmosphere around the newborn rat after birth. In isolated stratum corneum in vitro, filaggrin proteolysis took place only between 80 and 95% relative humidity, both higher and lower relative humidity blocked the proteolysis. Application of occlusive patches to adult rats prevented the normal proteolysis of filaggrin, indicating that this mechanism controls not only the massive filaggrin proteolysis occurring after birth but also the proteolysis occurring during normal stratum corneum maturation. The stratum corneum therefore has the ability to respond to changes in external humidity by altering the level of the stratum corneum where it converts its reserves of filaggrin into water binding amino acids, such that under humid conditions water binding components will be produced in only the most superficial stratum corneum, or even not produced at all.