In an attempt to identify new members of the human type II hair keratin family by means of 3'- and 5'-RACE methods and cDNA from anagen hair follicles, we detected a sequence that encoded a hitherto unknown type II cytokeratin. The novel cytokeratin comprises 251 amino acids and exhibits the highest sequence homology with K5. Comparative one- and two-dimensional western blots of keratins from anagen hair bulbs, containing or not containing the outer and inner root sheaths (ORS/IRS), and from footsole epidermis with an antibody against the new cytokeratin, revealed its comigration with K6 and its expression in the ORS/IRS complex. We have therefore named the new cytokeratin K6hf, to distinguish it from the various K6 isoforms and to indicate its expression in the hair follicle. Both in situ hybridization with a K6hf-specific cRNA probe and indirect immunofluorescence with the K6hf antibody showed that K6hf is exclusively expressed in the so-called "companion layer" of the hair follicle, a single layered band of flat and vertically oriented cells between the cuboidal ORS cells and the IRS that stretches from the lowermost bulb region to the isthmus of the follicle. Concomitant K17 and K16 expression studies showed that besides suprabasal ORS cells, these cytokeratins are sequentially expressed subsequent to K6hf in companion cells above the hair bulb. Our study confirms the view of a vertically oriented companion layer differentiation. The clearly delayed K17 and K16 expression relative to that of K6hf in companion cells most probably excludes these keratins as possible type I partners of K6hf and suggests the existence of a still unknown type I partner of its own. Thus, not only morphologically but also biochemically, the companion layer is different from the ORS and can therefore be regarded as an independent histologic compartment of the hair follicle.