We propose and demonstrate a fully probabilistic (Bayesian) approach to the detection of cloudy pixels in thermal infrared (TIR) imagery observed from satellite over oceans. Using this approach, we show how to exploit the prior information and the fast forward modelling capability that are typically available in the operational context to obtain improved cloud detection. The probability of clear sky for each pixel is estimated by applying Bayes' theorem, and we describe how to apply Bayes' theorem to this problem in general terms. Joint probability density functions (PDFs) of the observations in the TIR channels are needed; the PDFs for clear conditions are calculable from forward modelling and those for cloudy conditions have been obtained empirically. Using analysis fields from numerical weather prediction as prior information, we apply the approach to imagery representative of imagers on polar-orbiting platforms. In comparison with the established cloud-screening scheme, the new technique decreases both the rate of failure to detect cloud contamination and the false-alarm rate by one quarter. The rate of occurrence of cloud-screening-related errors of >1 K in area-averaged SSTs is reduced by 83%. Copyright © 2005 Royal Meteorological Society.