We describe a novel mechanism for vital fluorescent dye entry into sensory cells and neurons: permeation through ion channels. In addition to the slow conventional uptake of styryl dyes by endocytosis, small styryl dyes such as FMI-43 rapidly and specifically label hair cells in the inner ear by entering through open mechanotransduction channels. This labeling can be blocked by pharmacological or mechanical closing of the channels. This phenomenon is not limited to hair cell transduction channels, because human embryonic kidney 293T cells expressing the vanilloid receptor (TRPV1) or a purinergic receptor (P2X2) rapidly take up FM1-43 when those receptor channels are opened and not when they are pharmacologically blocked. This channel permeation mechanism can also be used to label many sensory cell types in vivo. A single subcutaneous injection of FMI-43 (3 mg/kg body weight) in mice brightly labels hair cells, Merkel cells, muscle spindles, taste buds, enteric neurons, and primary sensory neurons within the cranial and dorsal root ganglia, persisting for several weeks. The pattern of labeling is specific; nonsensory cells and neurons remain unlabeled. The labeling of the sensory neurons requires dye entry through the sensory terminal, consistent with permeation through the sensory channels. This suggests that organiccationic dyes are able to pass through a number of different sensory channels. The bright and specific labeling with styryl dyes provides a novel way to study sensory cells and neurons in vivo and in vitro, and it offers new opportunities for visually assaying sensory channel function.