Analysis of light chain expression is one of the most important determinations in flow cytometric immunophenotyping of patient specimens. Numerous technical factors, such as antibody choice and cytophilic antibody artifact, impact a laboratory's ability to perform this test. There have been conflicting reports concerning the efficacy of polyclonal versus monoclonal antibodies, as well as methods of circumventing cytophilic antibodies, indicating that a consensus has not been reached on optimal methods for light chain determination. The authors have investigated methods for light chain analysis in 104 normal donors and 366 patient specimens, comparing different anti-light chain antibodies as well as strategies for analysis of specimens with low numbers of monoclonal B cells, admixed polyclonal B cells, or cytophilic antibodies. The patient specimens were either part of the initial diagnostic evaluation of patients with suspected lymphoma, or were performed for staging or assessment of treatment of patients with known B-cell neoplasia. No monoclonality was detected in control specimens, and there was no significant difference in staining with monoclonal verses polyclonal anti-light chain antibodies. In addition, cytophilic antibody did not obscure results in normal controls. Monoclonality was detected in 106 patient specimens, with 89 showing gross involvement with a predominant monoclonal B-cell process. However, in 43% of the grossly monoclonal specimens, there was failure to detect monoclonality with at least one light chain antibody set, with 8% of these cases showing failure with two anti-light chain sets. This indicates the importance of antibody choice in light chain analysis. Cytophilic antibody artifact in monoclonal specimens was easily overcome by appropriate antibody combinations, obviating the need for cytophilic antibody-shedding by incubation at 37 degrees C in fetal calf serum. In 27 patient specimens with low numbers of B cells or admixed polyclonal B cells, a clonal search based on FSC and CD19 or CD20 expression was performed. In 17 of the 27 cases (63%), a small monoclonal population was detected among admixed polyclonal B cells. The authors conclude that multiple strategies are necessary in flow cytometric analysis for B-cell monoclonality.