BACKGROUND Progressive or ongoing skin necrosis after traumatic injury is well known. Experimental evidence has associated these events with neutrophil activation and secondary oxidant injury. To determine the mechanism by which neutrophils migrate to a site of injury, cytokine release from injured skin was measured. METHODS Twenty-five skin biopsy specimens of acute partial thickness skin injuries were compared with uninjured skin of the same patient. Conditioned medium from explanted skin was assayed for tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and IL-8. RESULTS Acute skin injury resulted in a significant release of IL-8 but not IL-6 or TNF. In eight patients gradient cytokine release was found; IL-8 levels for partial thickness burn were 26.4 ng/ml, for unburned skin adjacent to the burn were 2.1 ng/ml, and for distal normal skin were 0.2 ng/ml. CONCLUSIONS IL-8 is released from acutely injured skin; IL-6 and TNF are not. This selective release suggests a mechanism whereby neutrophils are recruited into injured tissue. These neutrophils might then induce further injury, increasing the extent of posttraumatic tissue loss.