Twenty per cent of sentinel lymph node (SLN)-positive melanoma patients have positive non-SLN lymph nodes in completion lymph node dissection (CLND). We investigated SLN tumour load, non-sentinel positivity and disease-free survival (DFS) to assess whether certain patients could be spared CLND. Sentinel lymph node biopsy was performed on 392 patients between 1999 and 2005. Median observation period was 38.8 months. Sentinel lymph node tumour load did not predict non-SLN positivity: 30.8% of patients with SLN macrometastases (> or =2 mm) and 16.4% with micrometastases (< or =2 mm) had non-SLN positivity (P=0.09). Tumour recurrences after positive SLNs were more than twice as frequent for SLN macrometastases (51.3%) than for micrometastases (24.6%) (P=0.005). For patients with SLN micrometastases, the DFS analysis was worse (P=0.003) when comparing those with positive non-SLNs (60% recurrences) to those without (17.6% recurrences). This difference did not translate into significant differences in DFS: patients with SLN micrometastasis, either with (P=0.022) or without additional positive non-SLNs (P<0.0001), fared worse than patients with tumour-free SLNs. The 2-mm cutoff for SLN tumour load accurately predicts differences in DFS. Non-SLN positivity in CLND, however, cannot be predicted. Therefore, contrary to other studies, no recommendations concerning discontinuation of CLND based on SLN tumour load can be deduced.