In the course of immunohistochemical studies it has become apparent that there is a distinct phenotype of keratin expression that is shared by basal epithelial cells in a variety of different tissues. A basal cell can be defined as a cell in contact with a basal lamina but with no free luminal surface; this distinguishes it from a simple epithelial cell, which has a free luminal surface as well as basal lamina contact, and from stratifying suprabasal keratinocytes, which have neither basal lamina contact nor free luminal surface. All basal cells, whether they are in glandular ductal or secretory epithelia, or in stratified squamous epithelia, express the keratin pair K5 and K14. In this paper we describe monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies that are monospecific for both keratins 14 and 5 or are specific for denaturation-sensitive epitopes unique to basal cells, including five new monoclonal antibodies: LL001 and LL002 (to keratin 14), 2.1.D7 (to keratins 5, 6 and 8), and LH6 and LH8 (conformation-specific basal cell markers). These antibodies have been used to monitor the distribution of the basal cell phenotype and to demonstrate the expression of keratins 5 and 14 in this cell type, in both stratified epithelia and mixed epithelial glands. The consistent association of this keratin pair with basal cells suggests a possible specific function for these keratin in reinforcing epithelia under physical stress, whilst expression of these keratins may conflict with the differentiated functions of most simple epithelial cells.