Arnica and propolis have been used for thousands of years in folk medicine for several purposes. They possess several biological activities such as anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antiviral and tissue regenerative, among others. Although the antibacterial activity of propolis has already been demonstrated, very few studies have been done on bacteria of clinical relevance in dentistry. Also, the antimicrobial activity of Arnica has not been extensively investigated. Therefore the aim here was to evaluate in vitro the antimicrobial activity, inhibition of adherence of mutans streptococci and inhibition of formation of water-insoluble glucan by Arnica and propolis extracts. Arnica montana (10%, w/v) and propolis (10%, w/v) extracts from Minas Gerais State were compared with controls. Fifteen microorganisms were used as follows: Candida albicans--NTCC 3736, F72; Staphylococcus aureus--ATCC 25923; Enterococcus faecalis--ATCC 29212; Streptococcus sobrinus 6715; Strep. sanguis--ATCC 10556; Strep. cricetus--HS-6; Strep. mutans--Ingbritt 1600; Strep. mutans--OMZ 175; Actinomyces naeslundii--ATCC 12104, W 1053; Act. viscosus OMZ 105; Porphyromonas gingivalis; Porph. endodontalis and Prevotella denticola (the last three were clinical isolates). Antimicrobial activity was determined by the agar diffusion method and the zones of growth inhibition were measured. To assess cell adherence to a glass surface, the organisms were grown for 18 h at 37 degrees C in test-tubes at a 30 degree angle. To assay water-insoluble glucan formation, a mixture of crude glucosyltransferase and 0.125 M sucrose was incubated for 18 h at 37 degrees C in test-tubes at a 30 degree angle. Arnica and propolis extracts (20 microl) were added to these tubes to evaluate the % of inhibition of cell adherence and water-insoluble glucan formation. The propolis extract significantly inhibited all the microorganisms tested (p < 0.05), showing the largest inhibitory zone for Actinomyces spp. The Arnica extract did not demonstrate significant antimicrobial activity. Cell adherence and water-insoluble glucan formation were almost completely inhibited by the propolis extract at a final concentration of 400 microg/ml and 500 microg/ml, respectively. The Arnica extract showed slight inhibition of the adherence of the growing cells (19% for Strep. mutans and 15% for Strep. sobrinus) and of water-insoluble glucan formation (29%) at these same concentrations. Thus, the propolis extract showed in vitro antibacterial activity, inhibition of cell adherence and inhibition of water-insoluble glucan formation, while the Arnica extract was only slightly active in those three conditions.