Background Chemokines are critical mediators of T-cell homing into inflamed skin. The complex nature of this multicellular response makes it difficult to analyse mechanisms mediating the early responses in vivo. Objectives To visualize directly T-cell homing into inflamed skin and its inhibition by blockades using a unique noninvasive confocal microscopy. Materials and methods A mouse model of allergic contact dermatitis was used. T cells from oxazolone-sensitized and -challenged Balb/c mice were first analysed phenotypically in vitro. CD4 T cells were then labelled with a tracker dye and transferred into Balb/c-SCID mice. The recipient mice were challenged with oxazolone and CD4 T-cell homing into inflamed skin was visualized. Results T cells with the skin homing receptors CCR4 and CCR10 were increased in the affected skin and draining lymph nodes, and effectively attracted by their specific chemokines CCL17, CCL22 and CCL27 in vitro. Using in vivo imaging, T-cell migration into the inflamed skin was observed at 2 h after application, peaking at 12 h and continuing for 48 h. Simultaneous systemic administration of neutralizing antibodies against CCR4 ligands (CCL17 and CCL22) and CCR10 ligand (CCL27) led to a significant suppression of T-cell migration and skin inflammation. Conclusions Our data indicate that these tissue-selective adhesion molecules and chemokine/receptor pathways act in concert to attract specialized T-cell populations to mediate cutaneous inflammation. The in vivo imaging technique can be applicable to other models of cutaneous diseases to help with better understanding of the pathogenesis and monitoring the therapeutic effects. © 2009 British Association of Dermatologists.