Previous studies have shown that ontogeny of the epidermal permeability barrier and lung occur in parallel in the fetal rat, and that pharmacologic agents, such as glucocorticoids and thyroid hormone, accelerate maturation at comparable developmental time points. Gender also influences lung maturation, i.e., males exhibit delayed development. Sex steroid hormones exert opposite effects on lung maturation, with estrogens accelerating and androgens inhibiting. In this study, we demonstrate that cutaneous barrier formation, measured as transepidermal water loss, is delayed in male fetal rats. Administration of estrogen to pregnant mothers accelerates fetal barrier development both morphologically and functionally. Competent barriers also form sooner in skin explants incubated in estrogen-supplemented media in vitro. In contrast, administration of dihydrotestosterone delays barrier formation both in vivo and in vitro. Finally, treatment of pregnant rats with the androgen antagonist flutamide eliminates the gender difference in barrier formation. These studies indicate that (a) estrogen accelerates and testosterone delays cutaneous barrier formation, (b) these hormones exert their effects directly on the skin, and (c) sex differences in rates of barrier development in vivo may be mediated by testosterone.