A methanol extract of the leaves of the plant Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary) was evaluated for its effects on tumor initiation and promotion in mouse skin. Application of rosemary to mouse skin inhibited the covalent binding of benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P] to epidermal DNA and inhibited tumor initiation by B(a)P and 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA). Topical application of 20 nmol B(a)P to the backs of mice once weekly for 10 weeks, followed 1 week later by promotion with 15 nmol 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) twice weekly for 21 weeks, resulted in the formation of 7.1 tumors per mouse. In a parallel group of animals that were treated topically with 1.2 or 3.6 mg of rosemary 5 min prior to each application of B(a)P, the number of tumors per mouse was decreased by 54 or 64%, respectively. Application of rosemary to mouse skin also inhibited TPA-induced ornithine decarboxylase activity, TPA-induced inflammation, arachidonic acid-induced inflammation, TPA-induced hyperplasia, and TPA-induced tumor promotion. Mice initiated with 200 nmol DMBA and promoted with 5 nmol TPA twice weekly for 19 weeks developed an average of 17.2 skin tumors per mouse. Treatment of the DMBA-initiated mice with 0.4, 1.2, or 3.6 mg of rosemary together with 5 nmol TPA twice weekly for 19 weeks inhibited the number of TPA-induced skin tumors per mouse by 40, 68, or 99%, respectively. Topical application of carnosol or ursolic acid isolated from rosemary inhibited TPA-induced ear inflammation, ornithine decarboxylase activity, and tumor promotion. Topical application of 1, 3, or 10 mumol carnosol together with 5 nmol TPA twice weekly for 20 weeks to the backs of mice previously initiated with DMBA inhibited the number of skin tumors per mouse by 38, 63, or 78%, respectively. Topical application of 0.1, 0.3, 1, or 2 mumol ursolic acid together with 5 nmol TPA twice weekly for 20 weeks to DMBA-initiated mice inhibited the number of tumors per mouse by 45-61%.