Macrophage tropic HIV-1 is predominant during the initial viremia after person to person transmission of HIV-1 (Zhu, T., H. Mo, N. Wang, D.S. Nam, Y. Cao, R.A. Koup, and D.D. Ho. 1993. Science. 261:1179-1181.), and this selection may occur during virus entry and carriage to the lymphoid tissue. Human skin explants were used to model HIV-1 selection that may occur at the skin or mucosal surface. Macrophage tropic, but not T cell line tropic strains of HIV-1 applied to the abraded epidermis were recovered from the cells emigrating from the skin explants. Dermis and epidermis were separated by dispase digestion after virus exposure to determine the site of viral selection within the skin. Uptake and transmission to T cells of all HIV-1 isolates was found with the dermal emigrant cells, but only macrophage tropic virus was transferred by emigrants from the epidermis exposed to HIV-1, indicating selection only within the epidermis. CD3+, CD4+ T cells were found in both the dermal and epidermal emigrant cells. After cell sorting to exclude contaminating T cells, macrophage tropic HIV-1 was found in both the dermal emigrant dendritic cells and in dendritic cells sorted from the epidermal emigrants. These observations suggest that selective infection of the immature epidermal dendritic cells represents the cellular mechanism that limits the initial viremia to HIV-1 that can use the CCR5 coreceptor.