Ultraviolet B (UVB, 290-320 nm) exposure results in a variety of cellular insults including induction of cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers in DNA. Accumulation of these lesions can lead to mutations in critical genes and contribute to the development of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Topically applied alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) has previously been shown to prevent the induction of skin tumors in UVB irradiated female C3H/HeNTac mice. We hypothesized that alpha-tocopherol, which absorbs strongly in the UVB, may act as a sunscreen to prevent photodamage. To explore possible mechanisms of photoprotection, we topically applied alpha-tocopherol dispersed in a neutral cream vehicle to the dorsal epidermis of female C3H/HeNTac mice and exposed them to 2.5 J/m2/s of UVB for 60 min. Immediately after exposure, we analyzed thymine dimer levels in DNA by capillary gas chromatography with electron capture detection. Epidermal DNA from mice receiving this UVB dose contained 247 +/- 42 pmol thymine dimers/micromol thymine. Topical application of alpha-tocopherol inhibited dimer formation in a dose-dependent manner. A 1% alpha-tocopherol dispersion inhibited the formation of thymine dimers to 43% of levels in vehicle controls. Several vitamin E compounds, including alpha-tocopherol acetate, alpha-tocopherol methyl ether, gamma-tocopherol, and delta-tocopherol also inhibited thymine dimer formation, but were five- to ten-fold less potent than alpha-tocopherol. A variety of commercially available sunscreens were also less potent than alpha-tocopherol in their ability to reduce dimer formation. These results suggest that DNA photoprotection is an important mechanism by which topically applied alpha-tocopherol can inhibit UVB induced skin cancer. Alpha-Tocopherol acetate, the most common form of vitamin E in commercial skin care products, conferred less protection, perhaps due to its lower absorptivity in the UVB. Our results further underscore the importance of determining which forms of vitamin E can inhibit specific lesions involved in photocarcinogenesis.