There are many situations in which it would be useful to know the phase state of the biological clock. It is recognized that measurement of melatonin levels can provide this information, but traditionally blood has been used for the analysis, and there are many problems in extending the measurements into the home or field situations. The aim of this study was to develop and validate a salivary melatonin radioimmunoassay and to compare results obtained against a plasma assay for determining the onset of melatonin secretion. The assay developed was sensitive (4.3 pM) and required only 200 microliters of sample. A rhythm in melatonin was detected in saliva, peaking at approximately 120 pM or 30% of the plasma levels. Using an objective criterion for determining the onset of secretion (mean +/- 2 standard deviations of three daytime samples), the time of onset was shown to exhibit low intraindividual variability (coefficient of variation = 1.5%-4.3%). The time of onset determined using saliva was significantly correlated with the plasma onset (r = .70, p < .05). The onsets determined were 22:30 h +/- 22 min for the saliva and 21:50 h +/- 16 min for plasma for 17 subjects. Similarly, the acrophases of the saliva and plasma melatonin rhythms were significantly correlated. Neither posture alone nor changes in posture affected the calculation of the onset of melatonin secretion using the saliva approach. Very high saliva flow rates induced by citric acid resulted in lower melatonin concentrations compared to the gentle chewing on parafin film. These results firmly establish the use of salivary melatonin measurements for phase typing of the melatonin rhythm in humans.