Human placental villi are surfaced by a multinucleated and terminally differentiated epithelium, the syncytiotrophoblast, with a subjacent layer of mononucleated cytotrophoblasts that can divide and fuse to replenish the syncytiotrophoblast. The objectives of this study were i) to develop an approach to definitively identify and distinguish cytotrophoblasts from the syncytiotrophoblast, ii) to unambiguously determine the relative susceptibility of villous cytotrophoblasts and syncytiotrophoblast to constitutive and stress-induced apoptosis mediated by caspases, and iii) to understand the progression of apoptosis in villous trophoblasts. Confocal microscopy with co-staining for E-cadherin and DNA allowed us to clearly distinguish the syncytiotrophoblast from cytotrophoblasts and identified that many cytotrophoblasts are deeply interdigitated into the syncytiotrophoblast. Staining for specific markers of caspase-mediated apoptosis indicate that apoptosis occurs readily in cytotrophoblasts but is remarkably inhibited in the syncytiotrophoblast. To determine if an apoptotic cell or cell fragment was from a cytotrophoblast or syncytiotrophoblast, we found co-staining with E-cadherin along with a marker for apoptosis was essential: in the absence of E-cadherin staining, apoptotic cytotrophoblasts would easily be mistaken as representing localized regions of apoptosis in the syncytiotrophoblast. Regions with perivillous fibrin-containing fibrinoid contain the remnants of trophoblast apoptosis, and we propose this apoptosis occurs only after physical isolation of a region of the syncytium from the main body of the syncytium. We propose models for the progression of apoptosis in villous cytotrophoblasts and for why caspase-mediated apoptosis does not occur within the syncytium of placental villi.