UV irradiation of mice causes a systemic immune alteration that can be detected either by suppression of the immunologic rejection of UV-induced tumors, or by suppression of contact hypersensitivity (CHS). Suppression of these two immunologic responses has similar photobiologic characteristics and in both cases is associated with the generation of antigen-specific suppressor T cells. To identify whether a specific photoreceptor for this effect exists, the relative wavelength effectiveness (action spectrum) was determined for the UV-induced suppression of CHS. Narrow bands of UV (half bandwidth 3 nm) were used at 10 wavelengths from 250 to 320 nm to obtain dose-response curves. Irradiation with each of these bands of UV caused dose-dependent immunosuppression of CHS, but with differing effectiveness. Immunosuppression was clearly separable from the generation of gross skin damage and inflammation. Further, immunosuppression by the most effective wavelength (270 nm) was associated with the generation of antigen-specific suppressor cells. The action spectrum derived from the dose-response curves has a maximum between 260 and 270 nm, a shoulder at 280-290 nm, and declines steadily to approximately 3% of maximum at 320 nm. The finding of such a clearly defined wavelength dependence implies the presence of a specific photoreceptor for this effect. Removing the stratum corneum by tape stripping before UV irradiation prevented the suppression of CHS using 254-nm radiation, suggesting the photoreceptor is superficially located in the skin. A number of epidermal compounds with absorption spectra similar to the action spectrum are discussed and evaluated with respect to their potential for being the photoreceptor. Based on (a) the close fit of its absorption spectrum to the action spectrum, (b) its superficial location in the stratum corneum, and (c) its photochemical properties, the hypothesis is advanced that the photoreceptor for systemic UV-induced immunosuppression of contact hypersensitivity may be urocanic acid. As such, it may also play a role in UV-induced carcinogenesis via the production of tumor-specific suppressor cells.