The aim of this study is to examine possible in vitro antioxidant effects of melatonin. Thus, the total in vitro antioxidant activity of melatonin was studied using a thiocyanate method. Additionally, the reducing power, the superoxide anion scavenging activity and free radical scavenging activity of melatonin were determined. Melatonin exhibited potent antioxidant activity in a linoleic acid emulsion system. The antioxidant activity increased with increasing concentrations of melatonin (50-500 microg). The 50, 100, 250 and 500 microg melatonin doses showed 41, 60, 86 and 99% inhibition of peroxidation of linoleic acid, respectively. On the other hand, a 500-microg dose of alpha-tocopherol showed 34% inhibition of peroxidation of linoleic acid. Like the total antioxidant activity, the reducing power of melatonin increased in a dose-dependent manner. The reducing power of melatonin was statistically significant versus control, but lower than butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) or quercetin. Additionally, melatonin had potent superoxide radical scavenging activity and exhibited a higher superoxide radical scavenging activity than quercetin or BHT but lower than butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). Melatonin's direct free radical scavenging actions may account, at least in part, for its ability to reduce lipid peroxidation. Melatonin may have utility in protecting stored foods from free radical-induced deterioration.