In the human squamous carcinoma cell line SCC-9, the expression of two markers of keratinocyte differentiation, involucrin and transglutaminase, was greatly stimulated when growing cultures reached confluence. However, the two markers differed temporally in their induction, with transglutaminase reaching maximal levels shortly after confluence and involucrin a week later. If replication was arrested with hydroxyurea prior to confluence, transglutaminase induction occurred within several days but involucrin levels were completely suppressed. Such a striking degree of uncoupling also resulted when the cells were treated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo[a]pyrene but not with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, a potent inducer of aryl hydrocarbon hydroxylase, or with pyrene. Chronic treatment with the tumor promoter 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate suppressed expression of both transglutaminase and involucrin. However, suppression of the latter (evident in greatly reduced mRNA levels) was considerably more potent and powerful. These findings demonstrate uncoupling of keratinocyte differentiation, potentially useful in analysis of its multiple regulatory influences. They also emphasize the utility of sensitive keratinocyte targets for studying the mechanisms by which model carcinogens disturb the orderly progression of events in their differentiation program.