The distribution of melanocytes in human skin has been observed to vary within and among individuals, yet little is known of the factors that determine the density of these pigment cells. These factors were explored in a molecular epidemiological study conducted among a population-based sample of 97 male subjects aged over 50 years in Queensland, Australia. Information relating to environmental and phenotypic factors was collected through face-to-face interviews and physical examination of all participants. In addition, 2-mm biopsies of representative skin were taken from the dorsum of the hand and another anatomical site. Melanocytes were identified by cytoplasmic staining with the B8G3 (anti-TRP1) monoclonal antibody using standard immunohistochemical techniques. Melanocyte counts were performed blind by two observers. On crude analysis, melanocyte density decreased with advancing age (P = 0.0002), and increased with increasing number of naevi (P = 0.01). Other pigmentary characteristics (such as hair and eye colour and depth of tan) were not associated with epidermal melanocyte density. Melanocyte density varied significantly by anatomical site (P = 0.02), with highest densities observed on the back/shoulders (n = 50, 17.1 +/- 8.8 cells/mm, mean +/- SD) followed by the upper limbs (n = 11, 12.6 +/- 8.8 cells/mm) and lower limbs (n = 14, 14.4 +/- 5.9 cells/mm). Lowest melanocyte densities were recorded on the anterior trunk (n = 3, 3.2 +/- 2.4 cells/mm). These findings confirm the results of earlier studies in which site-specific differences in melanocyte density have been found. We speculate that the unequal distribution of melanocytes may partially explain the site-specific incidence of melanoma, offering fresh perspectives on the aetiology of this cancer.