Alpha hydroxyacids (AHAs) are used to enhance stratum corneum desquamation and improve skin appearance. The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether some AHAs improve skin barrier function and prevent skin irritation. Eleven healthy subjects (aged 28 +/- 6 years, mean +/- SD) entered the study. Six test sites of 8 x 5 cm (four different AHAs, vehicle only (VE) and untreated control (UNT) were selected and randomly rotated on the volar arm and forearm. The four different AHAs at 8% concentration in base cream were glycolic acid (GA), lactic acid, tartaric acid (TA) and gluconolactone (GLU). The products were applied twice a day for 4 weeks (2 mg/cm2). At week 4, a 5% sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) challenge patch test was performed under occlusion for 6 h (HillTop chamber, 18 mm wide) on each site. Barrier function and skin irritation were evaluated by means of evaporimetry (Servomed EP-1) and chromametry (a* value, Minolta CR200) weekly, and at 0, 24 and 48 h after SLS patch removal. No significant differences in transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and erythema were observed between the four AHAs at week 4. After SLS challenge, GLU- and TA-treated sites resulted in significantly lower TEWL compared with VE, UNT (P < 0.01) and GA (P < 0.05) both at 24 and 48 h. Similarly, a* values were significantly reduced after irritation in GLU- and TA-treated sites. This study shows that AHAs can modulate stratum corneum barrier function and prevent skin irritation; the effect is not equal for all AHAs, being more marked for the molecules characterized by antioxidant properties.