Trans-urocanic acid (UCA) is found in the upper layer of the skin and UV irradiation induces its photoisomerization to cis-UCA. Cis-UCA mimics some of the immunosuppressive properties of UV exposure. The wavelength dependence for in vitro photoisomerization of trans-UCA (15 microM) over the spectral range 250 nm-340 nm (10 nm intervals) was determined. The action spectrum revealed that maximal cis-UCA production occurred at 280 nm, which is red-shifted by 10-12 nm from its absorption peak at 268 nm and differs markedly from the reported action spectra for cis-UCA production in mouse skin in vivo, which peaks at 300-310 nm. The reasons for the red shift between the in vitro and in vivo action spectra are not clear. There is limited evidence suggesting that the UV absorption maximum of trans-UCA red shifts from 268 nm in vitro to 310 nm on interaction with stratum corneum proteins in vivo. This phenomenon was investigated by applying trans-UCA (2.5 mg/cm2) in an oil emulsion to isolated human stratum corneum. After incubation at 37 degrees C for 1 h, the absorption spectra of stratum corneum with UCA and with oil only were compared using a Xe arc source and a spectroradiometer. A moderate red shift in trans-UCA absorption from approximately 268 nm to 280 nm was observed. In summary, we suggest that the 10-12 nm red shift between the UCA absorption spectrum peak and the action spectrum peak in vitro may be accounted for by the wavelength dependence of quantum yields reported over the 254-313 nm range. The red shift between the in vitro and in vivo photoisomerization action spectra may result from the 10 to 12 nm red shift in the absorption of UCA in association with stratum corneum proteins, combined with increasing quantum yields over the 254-313 nm range.