The CMRF-44 and CD83 (HB15) antigens are associated with functional maturation and activation of blood dendritic cells (DC). We describe the expression of these antigens on freshly isolated epidermal Langerhans cells and dermal DC as well as the distribution of CD83+/ CMRF-44++-activated DC within sections of normal human skin. Fresh Langerhans cells were prepared by standard techniques and large numbers of enriched (25%-55%), viable dermal DC were obtained using an improved collagenase treatment protocol with density gradient enrichment. Freshly isolated Langerhans cells and dermal DC had similar costimulator and activation antigen expression, and both stimulated moderate levels of allogeneic T lymphocyte proliferation as determined in the 7 d mixed leukocyte reaction. In situ labeling of DC within skin sections revealed a population of CD83 and CMRF-44 positive dermal cells of which most (approximately 75%) were in intimate contact with CD3+ T lymphocytes, especially in the adnexal regions. In contrast, only 25%-30% of the more numerous CD1a++ dermal DC population were directly apposed to T lymphocytes. The CMRF-44++ dermal DC population stimulated an allogeneic mixed leukocyte reaction, confirming their identity as DC. These data, plus comparative data obtained for migratory dermal DC, suggest that only a small proportion of dermal DC have been triggered to a more advanced state of differentiation or activation. The striking association of the activated dermal DC population with T lymphocytes suggests that communication between these two cell types in situ may occur early in the immune response to cutaneous antigen.