Epidermal permeability barrier homeostasis requires the postsecretory processing of polar lipid precursors into nonpolar lipid products within the stratum corneum (SC) interstices by a family of lipid hydrolases. A specific requirement for beta-glucocerebrosidase (beta-GlcCer'ase), which exhibits a distinct acidic pH optimum, is particularly well documented. Therefore, we sought to determine whether the recovery of the barrier after acute insults requires acidification of the SC. We examined permeability barrier recovery by assessing changes in transepidermal water loss (TEWL), SC membrane ultrastructure utilizing ruthenium tetroxide (RuO4) postfixation, and beta-GlcCer'ase activity by in situ zymography at an acidic vs neutral pH. Barrier recovery proceeded normally when acetone-treated skin was exposed to solutions buffered to an acidic pH. In contrast, the initiation of barrier recovery was slowed when treated skin was exposed to neutral or alkaline pH, regardless of buffer composition. In addition, enhancement of the alkaline buffer-induced delay in barrier recovery occurred with Ca2+ and K+ inclusion in the buffer. Moreover, the pH-dependent alteration in barrier recovery appeared to occur through a mechanism that was independent of Ca(2+)- or K(+)-controlled lamellar body secretion, since both the formation and secretion of lamellar bodies proceeded comparably at pH 5.5 and pH 7.4. In contrast, exposure to pH 7.4 (but not pH 5.5) resulted in both the persistence of immature, extracellular lamellar membrane structures, and a marked decrease in the in situ activity of beta-GlcCer'ase. These results suggest first that an acidic extracellular pH is necessary for the initiation of barrier recovery, and second that the delay in barrier recovery is a consequence of inhibition of postsecretory lipid processing.