Peripheral blood natural killer (NK) cell activity of a group of 10 healthy non-atopic volunteers was reduced following the topical application of 15 g of 0.1 % betamethasone valerate ointment to the skin nightly for 1 week. In contrast, no such effect was observed when the inactive base of the steroid ointment was used. NK cell activity dropped significantly by day 7 (P < 0.05) and then recovered, although NK cell activity at day 22 was still lower than that observed at the start of the experiment. These findings suggest that topically applied steroid is absorbed in sufficient amounts to cause a systemic effect on NK cell function. This may have implications in a number of dermatological disorders, including atopic dermatitis, where topical steroids form the mainstay of treatment.