Electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry (ESI-MS) is a very promising tool for the analysis of phospholipid compositions, but is hampered by the fact that not all molecular species are detected with equal efficiency. We studied this and other issues that need to be taken into account to obtain truly quantitative compositional data. The key findings were as follows: First, the instrument response for both saturated and unsaturated phospholipid species decreased with increasing acyl chain length. This effect became increasingly prominent with increasing overall lipid concentration. Second, the degree of acyl chain unsaturation also had a significant effect on instrument response. At the highest concentration studied (10 pmol/microl), polyunsaturated species gave 40% higher intensity than the fully saturated ones. The effect of unsaturation diminished and nearly disappeared with progressive dilution. Third, the instrument response for the different head group classes varied markedly depending on the infusion solvent used. Notably, inclusion of ammonia in the infusion solvent eliminated sodium adduct formation in the positive ion mode, thus greatly simplifying the interpretation of the spectra. The fact that instrument response is dependent on many structural features, overall lipid concentration, solvent composition, and instrument settings makes it necessary to include several internal standards for each phospholipid class to obtain accurate data. Preferably, both unsaturated and saturated standards should be used. Finally, we quantified the major phospholipid classes of BHK cells using ESI-MS. The data agreed closely with those obtained with thin-layer chromatography and phosphorus analysis. This study indicates that quantitative compositional data can be obtained with ESI-MS, provided that proper attention is paid to experimental details, particularly the choice of internal standards.