In vivo UV exposure of human epidermis abrogates the function of CD1+DR+ Langerhans cells and induces the appearance of CD1-DR+ Ag-presenting macrophages. Epidermal cells from UV-exposed skin, in contrast to epidermal cells from normal skin, potently activate autologous CD4+ T cells, and, in particular, the CD45RA+ (2H4+) (suppressor-inducer) subset. We therefore determined whether UV-exposure in humans leads to a T cell response in which suppression dominates. Autologous blood T cells were incubated with epidermal cell suspensions from in vivo UV-irradiated skin. After activation, repurified T cells were transferred in graded numbers to autologous mononuclear cells (MNC) stimulated with PWM and the resultant IgG production analyzed by ELISA. Relative to T cells activated by unirradiated control epidermal cells, T cells activated by UV-exposed epidermal cells demonstrated enhanced capacity to suppress IgG production (n = 6; p less than or equal to 0.03). Within the T cell population, CD8+ cells stimulated by UV-exposed epidermal cells could be directly activated to suppress PWM-stimulated MNC Ig production if IL-2 was provided in the reaction mixture. The suppressive activity was also transferable with purified CD4+ T cells stimulated by UV-exposed epidermal cells (n = 10; p less than or equal to 0.01), and was radiosensitive. Suppression was decreased when PWM-stimulated MNC were depleted of CD8+ T cells before mixing with CD4+ T cells activated by UV-exposed epidermal cells, suggesting indirect induction of CD8+ Ts cells contained within the responding MNC populations. Indeed, physical depletion of CD45RA+ cells resulted in total abrogation of the suppressor function contained in the CD4+ T cells. Activation of suppressor function was critically dependent on DR+ APC contained in UV-exposed epidermis. The data suggest that UV-exposure modulates cutaneous APC activity in humans, as in mice, such that the dominant immune response is tilted toward suppression. These mechanisms in normal individuals may function to dampen responses to UV-induced endogenous Ag that are pathogenic in autoimmune disorders. However, these mechanisms might also facilitate the growth of UV-induced skin cancers.