We administered phenytoin (diphenylhydantoin) by mouth to 17 unselected patients to assess its ability to reduce blistering in recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (RDEB). Therapeutic response was correlated with blood levels of the drug. Although there was a decrease in blistering of 53 +/- 6 per cent (mean +/- S.E.) among all patients at levels of more than 8 microgram of phenytoin per milliliter, the response was variable, with 12 of 17 patients having a decrease in blistering of more than 40 per cent. Since increased collagenase in human skin has been implicated in the pathogenesis of blistering in RDEB, we examined the effect of phenytoin on this enzyme. Although the drug did not inhibit collagenase activity directly, its addition to human-skin explant and fibroblast cultures produced a 50 to 60 per cent decrease in collagenase activity and immunoreactive protein concentrations. These in vitro studies suggest that phenytoin inhibits synthesis or secretion of collagenase of both, and that the favorable clinical response can be explained by this inhibition.