Exposure to irritants may cause chronic irritant contact dermatitis (ICD), characterized by irregular epidermal thickening and a predominantly dermal mononuclear cell infiltrate. The mechanisms involved, and why only certain individuals are affected, are not clearly understood. Different irritants may trigger different cellular and molecular interactions between resident skin cells and recruited inflammatory cells. In some individuals these interactions may become self-perpetuating resulting in persistent inflammation in the absence of continued exposure. This study examined Langerhans cell (LC) density in clinically normal skin of 46 patients with chronic ICD and 10 healthy individuals, and compared the action of the two irritants nonanoic acid (NA) and sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) on the LCs and keratinocytes of clinically normal skin in patients with chronic ICD. There was a higher number of LCs/mm basement membrane in patients compared with controls, although there was no difference in the number of dendrites/LC nor in dendrite length. SLS induced keratinocyte proliferation after 48 h exposure, had no effect on LC number or distribution, and induced keratinocyte apoptosis after 24 and 48 h exposure. In contrast, NA decreased keratinocyte proliferation after 24 h exposure but this returned to basal levels after 48 h, and induced epidermal cell apoptosis after only 6 h exposure. NA dramatically decreased LC number after 24 and 48 h exposure, which was accompanied by basal redistribution and decreased dendrite length. Most significantly, NA induced apoptosis in over half of the LCs present after 24 and 48 h exposure.