Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a surfactant frequently used in the induction of experimental irritant contact dermatitis in animals and in humans, characteristically induces a dose-related increase in TEWL (transepidermal water loss). Ceramides are considered to be important in the regulation of the skin barrier. We therefore examined the relationship between initial ceramide content of stratum corneum and induced changes in skin color (erythema) and barrier function, after SLS application under occlusion (1% and 3% in water) to the forearm of 14 volunteers. Stratum corneum sheets were removed, stratum corneum lipids extracted, and ceramide composition determined from chromatograms (TLC) using densitometry. After determining baseline skin color and TEWL at each area, 2 samples of stratum corneum were obtained from each volunteer. Clinical and instrumental controls of the SLS-induced irritation were performed at 24, 48, 72 and 96 h. Erythema was evaluated by colorimetry: barrier impairment by changes in TEWL. We found inverse correlations between baseline ceramide 61 (weight) and the 24 h erythema score for SLS 3%, between ceramide 1 and 24 h TEWL, and between ceramide 611 and 72 h TEWL for SLS 3%. Our findings suggest that low levels of these ceramides may determine a proclivity to SLS-induced irritant contact dermatitis.