The study was performed to investigate the effect of penetration enhancers on the stratum corneum barrier. Epidermal membranes were prepared from freeze-stored (-70 degrees C) Caucasian breast skin and mounted in a flow-through diffusion cell. The validity of the freeze storage procedure was verified by measurement of [3H]-water penetration. The effect of the cyclic terpene, carveol, on the transdermal penetration of water and ethanol was studied in vitro. Control ethanol and water penetration measured with a donor solution of 50% ethanol/PBS (w/w) was 1.9+/-0.2 and 3.6+/-0.5 x 10(-3) cm/h. The addition of 3% carveol to the donor solution increased the permeation of ethanol and water after 4 h to 8.3+/-1.1 and 12.5+/-1.9 x 10(-3) cm/h, respectively. In a separate experiment, terpinen-4-ol and alpha-terpineol were also tested, in addition to carveol, for effect on tritium flux. No significant difference in maximum tritium flux was obtained between the three terpenes studied. The maximum increase in permeability coefficients of carveol, terpinen-4-ol and alpha-terpineol was 10.6, 8.7 and 10.9, respectively.