Epidermal expression of the two isoforms of the prostaglandin H-generating cyclooxygenase (COX-1 and COX-2) was evaluated both by immunohistochemistry performed on human and mouse skin biopsy sections and by Western blotting of protein extracts from cultured human neonatal foreskin keratinocytes. In normal human skin, COX-1 immunostaining is observed throughout the epidermis whereas COX-2 immunostaining increases in the more differentiated, suprabasilar keratinocytes. Basal cell carcinomas express little if any COX-1 or COX-2 immunostaining whereas both isozymes are strongly expressed in squamous cell carcinomas deriving from a more differentiated layer of the epidermis. In human keratinocyte cultures, raising the extracellular calcium concentration, a recognized stimulus for keratinocyte differentiation, leads to an increased expression of both COX-2 protein and mRNA; expression of COX-1 protein, however, shows no significant alteration in response to calcium. Because of a recent report that failed to show COX-2 in normal mouse epidermis, we also looked for COX-1 and COX-2 immunostaining in sections of normal and acetone-treated mouse skin. In agreement with a previous report, some COX-1, but no COX-2, immunostaining is seen in normal murine epidermis. However, following acetone treatment, there is a marked increase in COX-1 expression as well as the appearance of significant COX-2 immunostaining in the basal layer. These data suggest that in human epidermis as well as in human keratinocyte cultures, the expression of COX-2 occurs as a part of normal keratinocyte differentiation whereas in murine epidermis, its constitutive expression is absent, but inducible as previously published.