Humans are exposed to various peroxy and hydroperoxy compounds which are in use in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and polymer industries and which are also generated as a result of the peroxidative metabolic conversion of certain lipids. This study was designed to determine whether the organic hydroperoxides, tert-butyl hydroperoxide, cumene hydroperoxide and tert-butyl peroxybenzoate are metabolized by human carcinoma skin keratinocytes to free radicals. Incubation of keratinocytes prepared from cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma in phosphate-buffered saline (pH 7.4) containing desferrioxamine with tert-butyl hydroperoxide, cumene hydroperoxide and tert-butyl peroxybenzoate in the presence of spin trap (3,5-dibromonitrosobenzene sulfonic acid) resulted in the generation of corresponding methyl radical adducts. Prior heating of the cells to 100 degrees C abolished the generation of radical adducts. The addition of ethanol to the reaction mixture also inhibited formation of radical adducts. These data provide the first direct evidence that human carcinoma skin cells can generate free radicals from organic hydroperoxides. Since free radicals are suggested to be involved in the cascade of events occurring during tumor promotion this metabolic capacity may be an important determinant of human cancer risk for hydroperoxides.