Retinoic acid (RA) is the form of vitamin A that controls differentiation and proliferation of epithelia. Our previous work established that normal breast epithelia synthesize RA from retinol, an ability retained by three immortalized but nontumorigenic cell lines but lost in five of six breast cell lines. In this work, we characterize the cause of this defect in one of the lines, the MCF-7 line. We have determined that the immortalized but nontumorigenic cell line, MTSV1.7, capable of synthesizing RA from both retinol and retinal, contains a retinaldehyde dehydrogenase activity for the second step in RA biosynthesis. We have identified it, after isolation, as a previously described enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase 6 (ALDH6). Immunohistochemical analysis of normal human breast with antibodies to ALDH6 showed expression of this enzyme in the glandular epithelia colocalized with cellular RA-binding protein type II, a possible marker for certain cells able to synthesize RA. ALDH6 was not present in MCF-7 cells, and these cells were unable to oxidize retinal to RA in culture. When MCF-7 cells were then transfected with ALDH6, they (re)gained the ability to oxidize retinal to RA as well as some ability to synthesize RA when provided with retinol. This suggests that loss of ALDH6 expression is the defect in RA biosynthesis in these cells. Identification of ALDH6 as the retinaldehyde dehydrogenase present in normal human breast epithelia provides the first tool necessary for studying the loss of RA synthetic ability in cancer cells and the relationship of this process to malignant transformation.