Cultured fibroblasts treated with increasing concentrations of detergents expressed only encrypted levels of tissue factor activity (measured by fX activation in the presence of fVIIa), characteristic of undamaged cells, until each detergent reached a critical concentration at which the cryptic tissue factor activity was manifested. Beyond the narrow ranges of concentrations over which the detergents stimulated tissue factor activity, the detergents were inhibitory. Studies with Triton X-100 and octyl glucoside revealed that manifestation of tissue factor activity coincided with breakdown of the plasma membrane. The magnitude of the increased tissue factor activity differed among detergents, with octyl glucoside giving the largest response. The tissue factor that was active after Triton X-100 treatment remained mostly associated with the insoluble cell residue, whereas the concentration of octyl glucoside which stimulated activity released tissue factor activity into the supernatant. Radiolabeled antibody against human tissue factor was used to show that a small percentage of the total accessible tissue factor remained in the insoluble fraction after treatment with either non-ionic detergent. Chromatographic analysis of lipids extracted from cells treated with detergents and dansyl chloride showed dansyl-reactivity of phosphatidylserine on intact cells, and solubilization of membrane lipids at sublytic concentrations of detergents. These findings reveal that there is a critical level of detergent-induced membrane damage at which tissue factor activity is maximally expressed, in essentially an all-or-none manner. The results are consistent with a major role for phospholipid asymmetry in regulation of tissue factor specific activity, but require either maintenance of asymmetry during sublytic detergent perturbation of the plasma membrane or additional control mechanisms.