Sjögren-Larsson syndrome (SLS) is an inherited disorder associated with impaired fatty alcohol oxidation due to deficient activity of fatty alcohol:NAD+ oxidoreductase (FAO). FAO is a complex enzyme which consists of two separate proteins that sequentially catalyze the oxidation of fatty alcohol to fatty aldehyde and fatty acid. To determine which enzymatic component of FAO was deficient in SLS, we assayed fatty aldehyde dehydrogenase (FALDH) and fatty alcohol dehydrogenase in cultured fibroblasts from seven unrelated SLS patients. All SLS cells were selectively deficient in the FALDH component of FAO, and had normal activity of fatty alcohol dehydrogenase. The extent of FALDH deficiency in SLS cells depended on the aliphatic aldehyde used as substrate, ranging from 62% of mean normal activity using propionaldehyde as substrate to 8% of mean normal activity with octadecanal. FALDH activity in obligate SLS heterozygotes was partially decreased to 49 +/- 7% of mean normal activity using octadecanal as substrate. Differential centrifugation studies in fibroblasts indicated that this FALDH enzyme was largely particulate; soluble FALDH activity was normal in SLS cells. Intact SLS fibroblasts oxidized octadecanol to fatty acid at less than 10% of the normal rate, but oxidized free octadecanal normally, suggesting that the FALDH affected in SLS is chiefly involved in the oxidation of fatty alcohol to fatty acid. These results show that the primary enzymatic defect in SLS is the FALDH component of the FAO complex, which leads to deficient oxidation of fatty aldehyde derived from fatty alcohol.