The intercellular lipid lamellae of mammalian stratum corneum (SC) constitute the major barrier to percutaneous penetration of drugs and other solute molecules. In order to understand the barrier property of skin on a molecular level, we have initiated fluorescence spectroscopic investigation of the membranous structures of the SC and related model systems using the lipophilic probe 1,6-diphenyl-1,3,5-hexatriene (DPH). Incorporated into distearoylphosphatidylcholine and stratum corneum bilayers, DPH fluorescence reflected the change in lipid structure under thermal and chemical perturbations. Using a multiharmonic frequency approach, we measured the fluorescence lifetime and rotational correlation times for DPH in these systems. Our data indicated that a biexponential decay ((tau) 1 approximately equals 9 ns, (tau) 2 approximately equals 1.5 ns) described the intensity decay, while a hindered rotor model ((phi) approximately equals 5 ns, r(infinity ) approximately equals 0.3) described the anisotropy decay. These parameters reported the known thermotropic phase transition in porcine stratum corneum, and the influence of the penetration enhancer oleic acid in human epidermis. Thus, we have shown frequency- domain fluorescence spectroscopy to be a facile and powerful tool for monitoring the permeability of a solid tissue such as the SC.