Telomerase activation plays a crucial role in the immortalization of human cells and carcinogenesis; however, the temporal and pathophysiological aspects of the activation in vivo are poorly understood. We found telomerase activity not only in malignant tumors (91%) but also in most benign (60%) and premalignant (89%) skin tumors. This suggests the involvement of telomerase activation in a crucial biological step of human skin carcinogenesis. Because UV light is a major factor in skin carcinogenesis, we further examined telomerase activity in normal skin samples and in normal skin samples adjacent to benign, premalignant, and malignant skin lesions. Data for chronically sun-exposed body sites were compared with those for covered sites. Among normal skin samples, 39% (26 of 67) had telomerase activity, and this activity was unrelated to neighboring lesions but strongly associated with the level of sun exposure. Fifty-four % (21 of 39) of normal skin samples from chronically sun-exposed sites were telomerase-positive, compared with only 12% (3 of 26) of samples from covered sites. When we examined telomerase activity and CC to TT mutations at codons 247/8 of the p53 gene (which are considered to be UV specific) in the same normal skin samples, only 43% (7 of 16) of telomerase-positive normal skin samples at sun-exposed sites contained the p53 mutations, whereas all (7 of 7) of the samples with UV-specific p53 mutations showed telomerase activity (P = 0.019). These data suggest that telomerase activation is involved at an early stage of human skin carcinogenesis and that activation may precede the acquisition of UV-associated p53 mutations in the skin. Telomerase activity was also found in plucked hair follicles and enzymatically separated epidermis, which may be associated with the presence of stem cells in the skin.