Immunomodulatory effects of retinoids may be part of their anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties. We studied the in vivo effects of retinoic acid (RA) on antigen-presenting activity of human epidermal Langerhans cells and on accessory cell activity of keratinocytes. Two skin sites from each volunteer were treated in vivo with 0.1% RA or vehicle, respectively, once a day for 4 d. RA-treated epidermal cell (RA-EC) alloantigen presentation to CD4+ T cells in each volunteer tested was consistently greater than that induced by vehicle EC. However, this increased antigenpresenting activity did not lead to autoreactive CD4+ T-lymphocyte proliferation. Elevated unfractionated epidermal antigen-presenting activity of RA-EC was not due to increased keratinocyte major histocompatibility complex (MHC) or intercellular adhesion molecule expression or to other keratinocyte accessory signaling, because incubation of CD1a- flouroscence-activated cell sorter (FACS)-purified RA-EC inhibited alloantigen presentation, presumably through increased keratinocyte transforming growth factor-β. By contrast, Langerhans cell function was upregulated; FACS-purified CD1a+ Langerhans cells derived from RA-EC displayed a markedly increased ability, relative to Langerhans cells from vehicle EC, to present alloantigen to T cells. Triple color flow-cytometric analysis of RA-EC and vehicle EC suspensions revealed that RA treatment did not modify the number of DR+ and CD1a+DR+ EC, but did result in statistically significant increases in Langerhans cells expression of HLA-DR, CD11c, and CD1c. Another novel finding was that HLA-DR-dependent Langerhans cells antigen-presenting activity in both normal and RA-treated skin was completely blocked by anti-CD 11c antibody. Thus, retinoid upregulation of antigen-presenting activity may be due to upregulation of Langerhans cell CD11c, as well as class II MHC. Upregulation of cutaneous immune responsiveness in human skin without autoreactivity has not (to our knowledge) been reported previously, and the Langerhans cell phenotypic and functional state achieved is distinct from previously reported states of Langerhans cell activation.