The function of human epidermal T cells (ETC) is unknown. In the present study, dermal T cells (DTC), ETC and keratinocytes were cultured from normal human skin, DTC and ETC lines were expanded in medium containing interleukin 2. The autologous keratinocytes were transfected with a human papillomavirus 16 E6 and E7 plasmid to produce an immortal keratinocyte line 'HEK001'. Lymphocyte migration and adhesion to HEK001 was assessed in calcein fluorimetric assays, ETC migrated towards HEK001 three to four times more than DTC. ETC adhered to HEK001 two to four times more than DTC. The proportion of ETC expressing the cutaneous lymphocyte-associated antigen was greater than that of DTC (26% and 1%, respectively). The keratinocyte line HEK001 expressed ICAM-1 following stimulation with TNF-α or IFN-γ and following coculture with autologous cutaneous T cells, A blocking anti-ICAM-1 antibody reduced DTC and ETC adhesion to HEK001 by 30% and 50%, respectively. Therefore, cutaneous T cells may upregulate keratinocyte ICAM-1 expression which mediates adhesion to autologous keratinocytes. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the ETC and DTC populations are distinct. Both directed migration (epidermotropism) and selective retention may be involved in the development and maintenance of the ETC population in normal human skin.