We have shown previously that silymarin, a plant flavonoid, inhibits UVB-induced photocarcinogenesis in mice. As UVB-induced immunosuppression has been implicated in the development of skin cancer, we investigated whether silymarin can modulate the effects of UVB radiation on the immune system. Treatment of C3H/HeN mice with topically applied silymarin (0.5 or 1.0 mg/cm2) or silibinin, a major component of silymarin, markedly inhibited UVB (180 mJ/cm2)-induced suppression of contact hypersensitivity response in a local model of immunosuppression and had a moderate inhibitory effect in a systemic model of contact hypersensitivity. Silymarin reduced the UVB-induced enhancement of the levels of the immunosuppressive cytokine, interleukin (IL)-10, in the skin and draining lymph nodes and enhanced the levels of the immunostimulatory cytokine, IL-12. Intraperitoneal injection of mice treated with silymarin with an endotoxin-free neutralizing anti-IL-12 antibody abrogated the protective effects of the silymarin against UVB-induced suppression of the contact hypersensitivity response. Furthermore, the treatment of silymarin did not prevent UVB-induced suppression of the contact hypersensitivity response in IL-12 knockout mice but prevented it in their wild-type mice. Moreover, i.p. injection of IL-12 to silymarin-treated or non-silymarin-treated IL-12 knockout mice resulted in an enhanced response to contact hypersensitivity compared with the response in mice that were exposed to either UVB alone or silymarin plus UVB. These data indicate for the first time that silymarin has the ability to protect mice from UVB-induced immunosuppression and that this protective effect is mediated, at least in part, through IL-12. Copyright © 2006 American Association for Cancer Research.