We have examined the role of endogenously produced interleukin (IL) 4 and IL-10 in the regulation of inflammatory and immune reactions in the skin. In these experiments, irritant and contact hypersensitivity (CH) responses were elicited in mice with targeted disruptions of the IL-4 (IL-4T) or IL-10 (IL-10T) gene. Our study showed that IL-4T and wild-type (wt) mice exhibited equivalent responses to the irritant croton oil. In contrast, the response of IL-10T mice challenged with croton oil was abnormally increased. When IL-10T mice were exposed to a higher dose of irritant, irreversible tissue damage occurred. By comparison, any treatment of wt mice with croton oil resulted in far less tissue damage and resolution of inflammation. Neutralizing antibody studies demonstrated that the necrosis that occurred in IL-10T mice was due to the overproduction of tumor necrosis factor. The anti-tumor necrosis factor antibody treatment of IL-10T mice did not significantly reduce the edema or the influx of inflammatory cells, suggesting that these changes were due to the uncontrolled production of other proinflammatory cytokines. T cell-dependent immune responses were also evaluated using the contact sensitizer oxazolone. The response of IL-4T mice did not differ from wt mice. In contrast, IL-10T mice mounted an exaggerated CH response, increased in both magnitude and duration as compared with wt mice. Based on these studies, we have concluded that IL-10, but not IL-4, is a natural suppressant of irritant responses and of CH, and it limits immunopathologic damage in the skin.