In epidermis the onset of terminal differentiation normally coincides with inhibition of integrin function and expression, thereby ensuring that differentiating cells are selectively expelled from the basal layer. However, when stratification of cultured human epidermal keratinocytes is prevented by reducing the calcium concentration of the medium to 0.1 mM, keratinocytes initiate terminal differentiation while still attached to the culture substrate. We have examined the mechanism by which differentiating keratinocytes adhere to extracellular matrix proteins in low calcium medium and the consequences of inducing stratification by raising the calcium ion concentration to 1.8 mM (Standard Medium). In low calcium medium keratinocytes co-expressed integrins and terminal differentiation markers such as involucrin and peanut lectin-binding glycoproteins: differentiating cells contained integrin mRNA, synthesized integrin proteins de novo and expressed functional mature integrins. There were no differences in integrin synthesis, maturation or break down in low calcium or standard medium, although the level of beta 1 integrins on the surface of proliferating cells was higher in standard medium. Within 6 h of transfer from low calcium to standard medium integrin mRNA was no longer detectable in terminally differentiating cells, integrins were being lost from the cell surface, and selective migration out of the basal layer had begun. Antibodies to P- and E-cadherin, which block calcium-induced stratification, prevented the selective loss of integrin mRNA and protein from terminally differentiating cells. This suggests that cadherins may play a role in the down-regulation of integrin expression that is associated with terminal differentiation.