Irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) pathogenesis is not completely understood and the genes participating in the epidermal response towards chemical irritants are only partly known. It is commonly accepted that different irritants have different mechanisms of action in the development of ICD. To define the differential molecular events induced in the epidermis by different irritants, we collected sequential biopsies (, 4 and 24 hours after a single exposure and at day 11 after repeated exposure) from human volunteers exposed to sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) or nonanoic acid (NON). Gene expression analysis using high-density oligonucleotide microarrays revealed essentially different pathway responses h after exposure: NON transiently induced the IL-6 pathway as well as a number of mitogen activated signalling cascades including ERK and growth factor receptor signalling, whereas SLS transiently downregulated cellular energy metabolism pathways. Differential expression of the cyclooxygenase-2 and matrix metalloproteinase 3 transcripts was confirmed immunohistochemically. After cumulative exposure, 883 genes were differentially expressed while 26 suggested common biomarkers were identified . In conclusion, we bring new insights into two hitherto less well elucidated phases of skin irritancy: the very initial as well as the late phase after single and cumulative exposure, respectively.