By observing increases in the transepithelial paracellular permeability of a range of radiolabeled solutes and electron dense dyes, changes in molecular sieving caused by the cytokine, TNF (tumor necrosis factor), and the phorbol ester, TPA (12-0-tetra-decanoylphorbol-13-acetate), were characterized. Using 14C-labeled mannitol (mw 182), raffinose (mw 504), PEG (polyethylene glycol; mw 4000), and dextran (mw 10,000, 70,000 and 2,000,000), the transepithelial flux rates of these compounds were determined at the peak of the transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) changes caused by these two agents. TNF treatment resulted in increased permeability across LLC-PK1 epithelial cell sheets only to relatively small solutes, with an upper limit of approximately 4,000 mw. The low molecular weight "ceiling" for the TNF-treated epithelium is further evidence against TNF increasing transepithelial permeability by means of inducing nonspecific, microscopic "holes" in the epithelium, for which a "ceiling" would not exist. TPA treatment increases transepithelial paracellular permeability to a much broader range of solutes, extending well beyond 2 million mw. Transmission electron micrographs provide evidence that even the electron-dense dye complex, ruthenium red, can cross tight junctions of TPA-treated cell sheets. However, cationic ferritin cannot cross tight junctions of TPA-treated cell sheets. This shows that there is an upper limit to solutes able to cross TPA-treated cell sheets, but that this upper limit will include most proteins, which would then be able to cross tumor promoter-exposed (protein kinase C-activated) epithelial layers at accelerated rates. The biomedical implications for a high molecular weight cutoff in tumor promoter action in epithelial carcinogenesis, and for a low molecular weight cutoff in cytokine-induced epithelial apoptosis in inflammation, are discussed.