Allergic contact dermatitis differs from most other immune reactions by its strict dose dependence during the elicitation phase. Moreover, almost all known contact allergens can also induce dose-dependent irritative dermatitis and in general only elicit allergic contact dermatitis in sensitized individuals when applied within a narrow dose range. Therefore, we hypothesized that elicitation of contact hypersensitivity (CHS) may require two signals, antigen-specific effector cell activation and a non-antigen-specific proinflammatory signal, both of which are provided by application of a sufficient dose of hapten. To dissociate these putative two signals, oxazolone-sensitized mice were ear challenged with a dose of the specific hapten which was too low to elicit CHS. At the same time, an unrelated hapten was applied in a conventional concentration to the same skin site. Whereas neither treatment alone elicited a significant CHS response, application of both compounds together resulted in a strong CHS response that was indistinguishable from that elicited by the full dose of the specific hapten. Upon coadministration of the irrelevant hapten, allergic contact dermatitis could be elicited even when the dose of the specific hapten was further reduced by a factor of 10(3). In contrast, a dose reduction of the irrelevant hapten by a factor of two resulted in the loss of the CRS response. These data indicate that non-antigen-specific effects of epicutaneously applied haptens significantly contribute to the elicitation of CHS responses and that the capacity of the hapten to evoke this proinflammatory stimulus rather than its antigenicity is responsible for the strict concentration dependence.