It has been proposed that the skin is a functionally unique compartment of the immune system, although little direct evidence supporting this hypothesis has been presented. Here we show that lymphocyte populations at cutaneous sites can be differentiated from otherwise similar populations at noncutaneous sites by their preferential expression of an epitope defined by the MAb HECA-452. This MAb recognizes a predominantly 200-kd cell-surface glycoprotein present on about 16% of peripheral blood T cells, including both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells (17% and 11% HECA-452+, respectively), as well as TCR-delta-bearing T cells (32%+). Most thymocytes (99%) lacked HECA-452 antigen expression, and essentially all the HECA-452+ peripheral blood T cells were found in the adhesion molecule high, CD45R low putative memory cell subset, findings suggesting that HECA-452 expression develops peripherally as a consequence of antigenic stimulation. However, the HECA-452 antigen is not a conventional activation antigen because it was not upregulated with mitogen stimulation of peripheral blood T cells. Most significantly, among 54 diverse specimens of normal/reactive lymphoid tissues and sites of chronic inflammation, there was a clear association of lymphocyte HECA-452 expression and cutaneous location. In extracutaneous sites (n = 38) only about 5% of lymphocytes within the T-cell areas of these tissues expressed this antigen, whereas in inflammatory skin lesions (n = 16), 85% were HECA-452+. The association of HECA-452 expression and cutaneous location was also seen in a series of T-cell lymphomas. The malignant cells of 16 of 18 cases of epidermotropic (patch/plaque) stage mycosis fungoides were HECA-452+, as well as 2 of 7 nonmycosis fungoides peripheral T-cell lymphomas in skin. In contrast, this antigen was not expressed in thymic (lymphoblastic) lymphomas (n = 14), nonepidermotropic (tumor) stage mycosis fungoides (n = 5), and noncutaneous peripheral T-cell lymphomas (n = 15). Among lymphocytes, the preferential expression of the HECA-452 determinant by cutaneous T cells supports the hypothesis that the skin constitutes a immunologically unique lymphoid tissue and suggests that this molecule may play a role in either lymphocyte homing to skin or in lymphocyte interactions with the epidermis.