AIM: The clinical relevance of sentinel lymph node (SLN) analysis was evaluated prospectively and compared with other known risk factors of relapse in early stage melanoma. METHODS: Surgery was guided by lymphoscintigraphy, blue dye and gamma probe detection. SLN were analysed by haematoxylin eosin (HE) histochemistry and multimarker immunohistochemistry (IHC). Disease free survival (DFS) was evaluated with Kaplan-Meier plots according to different parameters and Cox analyses of variance. RESULTS: From 210 patients a total of 381 SLN were excised. Lymphoscintigraphy identified all excised SLN with only 2 false positive lymphatic lakes. Fifty patients (24%) had tumour positive SLN. With a mean follow-up of 31.3 months, 29 tumour recurrences were observed, 19 (38%) in 50 SLN positive and 10 (6%) in 160 SLN negative patients. Strong predictive factors for early relapse (p < 0.0005) were SLN positivity and a high Breslow index. CONCLUSION: SLN tumour positivity is an independent factor of high risk for early relapse with a higher power of discrimination than the Breslow index.