Pharmacologic suppression of the effector phase of contact hypersensitivity appears to have major relevance with regard to treatment of type IV reactions like contact dermatitis. Recently, tumor necrosis factor alpha has been shown to be a critical mediator in hapten-induced irritant and contact hypersensitivity reactions, thus offering new possibilities, for therapeutic intervention. Pentoxifylline, a methylxanthine derivative used in the treatment of vascular disorders, currently has been found to suppress the production of tumor necrosis factor alpha by human and murine leukocytes. Therefore, the effect of pentoxifylline on the elicitation phase of contact hypersensitivity was studied. Intraperitoneal injection of pentoxifylline into sensitized Balb/c and C3H/HeN mice before application of the challenging hapten dose resulted in a significant reduction of the outcome of the contact hypersensitivity reaction. The suppressive effect of pentoxifylline was dose dependent and maximally pronounced upon injection 3 h before hapten application. In contrast to the effector phase of contact hypersensitivity, induction of contact hypersensitivity was not affected by pentoxifylline when injected into naive mice before performance of sensitization. In addition, irritant dermatitis induced by 1% croton oil or 5% benzalkonium chloride was suppressed by pentoxifylline as well. These data suggest a potential pharmacologic intervention, with pentoxifylline as a means to treat contact dermatitis.