Increased expression of interleukin-1 (IL-1) in skin elicits a variety of responses, including inflammation and epidermal hyperplasia, which are also characteristic events elicited by tumor promoters. The goal of this study was to investigate whether various classes of tumor promoters increase expression of IL-1 alpha and whether phorbol ester-induced IL-1 alpha expression can be blocked by antitumor promoters. Northern analysis of mRNA isolated from the dorsal skins of SENCAR mice treated with 1 microgram of 4 beta-12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) showed that a single application of TPA produced a significant increase in IL-1 alpha mRNA at 6 h that decreased by 24 h after treatment. Two treatments of TPA at 48-h intervals induced, at 6 h, twice as much IL-1 alpha mRNA as one treatment. Of the other promoters tested, anthralin (22.6 micrograms), mezerein (2 micrograms), calcium ionophore A23187 (120 micrograms), and benzoyl peroxide (20 mg) induced IL-1 alpha mRNA with different kinetics and to different extents. On the other hand, the non-tumor promoting phorbol ester analogue 4 alpha-12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate had little effect on the expression of IL-1 alpha mRNA. The effects of various antitumor promoters on TPA-induced IL-1 alpha mRNA expression were also assessed. Fluocinolone acetonide, mepacrine, and 5,8,11,14-eicosatetraynoic acid were the most effective inhibitors, and each produced about 80% inhibition. Other antitumor promoters such as retinoic acid, N-tosyl-L-phenylalanine chloromethyl ketone, and butylated hydroxytoluene inhibited approximately 35%, 65%, and 50% of TPA-induced IL-1 alpha mRNA expression, respectively. Therefore, this study suggests a possible role of IL-1 alpha in the promotion stage of skin carcinogenesis.