The effect of a single time exposure of SLS to the buccal mucosa of mice was compared to one application of the hapten OXA (oxazolone), evaluated by routine histology, immunohistochemistry and ELISA quantifications of cytokines. The SLS concentrations (2%, 4% and 8%) resulted in epithelial surface necrosis at 1-6 h, after 2-6 h accumulation of intra-epithelial neutrophils and at 24 h the main inflammatory cells were mononuclear. Increased concentrations of SLS gave more severe damage. CD4(+) T cells were found at 6 h and increased slightly up to 24 h and were most frequently seen at the lowest SLS dose. The CD8(+) T cells were kept at a low number during the whole 24 h observation period, but increased proportionally to the CD4(+) T cells. One application of 1% OXA did not raise the number of cells of either phenotype (2-24 h). Neither IL-2 nor IFN-γ demonstrated increased levels during the week of observation at any concentration of SLS, contrary to one application of OXA which caused increased IL-2 levels both at the local application site and in the regional and distant lymph nodes. Regardless of SLS concentration, a minor increase in regional lymph node weight was observed 8-12 h after substance application, quickly to subside whilst one OXA application gave a maximal weight increase at 48-72 h. We conclude that oral mucosa irritant SLS reactions gave early surface necrosis and neutrophil infiltrations and later mononuclear cell infiltrations dominated by CD4(+) T cells. The cytokines IL-2 and IFN-γ and lymphocyte proliferation in the regional lymph nodes was not observed after SLS application, contrary to hapten application.