Cellular adhesion molecules play a central role in leucocyte migration through peripheral blood and tissues. A crucial stage in these events in selectin-mediated adhesion involving E-selectin expressed on activated endothelium interacting with a range of carbohydrate ligands expressed by specific subpopulations of leucocytes. As such mechanisms may be relevant to bone marrow-derived dendritic epidermal Langerhans' cell (LC) migration, expression of these carbohydrate ligands was assessed immunocytochemically in whole skin biopsies and in epidermal cell suspensions obtained from adult humans. Double-labelling experiments revealed that sialyl Lewis x, recognized by the monoclonal antibody CSLEX1, was expressed on epidermal LC (n = 9). Furthermore, expression was enhanced at 24 hr following epicutaneous application of antigen and in the inflammatory disorder psoriasis (n = 10). E-selectin was concomitantly strongly expressed on dermal endothelium in psoriasis and allergic contact dermatitis. Intradermal injection of the T-cell-derived cytokine interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) led to increased LC expression of sialyl Lewis x. In epidermal cell suspensions, in contrast to keratinocytes, CD1a+ cells expressed sialyl Lewis x, intensity of which was enhanced after 4 days in culture. CSLEX1 staining could be abolished and CD15 (non-sialated Lewis x) expression induced by saponification and treatment with neuraminidase. Expression of other selectin ligands was also examined. While the cutaneous lymphocyte antigen defined by the monoclonal antibody HECA-452 reacted with a small minority of LC, sialyl Lewis a and sulphatide were not expressed under any experimental conditions. These studies indicate that E-selectin-sialyl Lewis x interactions are potentially important in LC migration, both into and out of skin.