AIM: To develop a unified diagnostic approach for the detection of human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA in skin and mucosal biopsies from both immunocompetent and immunosuppressed individuals using a degenerate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method. METHODS: The sensitivity and specificity of three published degenerate primer sets (HVP2/B5 and F14/B15; MY09/MY11; CP62/69 outer and CP65/68 nested primer pairs) were evaluated in PCR reactions with serial dilutions of 12 representative cloned HPV types. This combination of primers was then used to detect HPV DNA in 49 benign and malignant lesions of cutaneous and mucosal origin from immunosuppressed, immunocompetent, and epidermodysplasia verruciformis (EV) patients, and compared with detection rates using single primer sets alone. RESULTS: The observed sensitivity of MY09/MY11 and CP62/69 + CP65/68 was high for mucosal and EV HPV types, respectively. The sensitivity of all primer sets for cutaneous types was low, but nonetheless the use of this combination of primers allowed HPV DNA detection in all of the benign warts analysed. Several mixed infections were also identified. A high prevalence of HPV DNA was similarly detected in squamous cell carcinomas from immunocompromised patients; the HPV types found were exclusively EV related. CONCLUSIONS: The use of a combined degenerate primer PCR approach considerably improves HPV DNA detection over individual primer sets and allows detection of mixed infections. The findings may help explain the discrepancies in published reports relating to HPV DNA detection in benign and malignant skin lesions. Further modifications to this method are in progress which should significantly improve comprehensive HPV detection and typing for diagnostic purposes.