p21 protein (p21) inhibitor of cyclin-dependent kinases is a critical downstream effector in the p53-specific pathway of growth control. p21 can also be induced by p53-independent pathways in relation to terminal differentiation. We investigated p21 immunoreactivity in normal breast and in 91 breast carcinomas [three in situ ductal carcinomas (DCIS) with microinfiltration and 88 infiltrating carcinomas, 17 of which with an associated DCIS; 57 node negative and 34 node positive] with long-term follow-up (median = 58 months). Seven additional breast carcinomas with known p53 gene mutations were investigated. In normal breast p21 expression was seen in the nuclei of rare luminal cells of acinar structures, and in occasional myoepithelial cells. Poorly differentiated DCIS showed high p21 expression, whereas well-differentiated DCIS tumours showed few p21-reactive cells. p21 was seen in 82 (90%) infiltrating tumours; staining was heterogeneous; the percentage of reactive nuclei ranged from 1% to 35%. High p21 expression (more than 10% of reactive cells) was seen in 24 (26%) cases, and was associated with high tumour grade (P = 0.032); no associations were seen with tumour size, metastases, oestrogen receptor status, MIB1 expression and p53 expression. p21 expression in cases with p53 gene mutations was low in six cases and high in one. High p21 expression was associated with short relapse-free survival (P = 0.003).