Fenretinide (N-4-hydroxyphenylretinamide [4-HPR]) is a synthetic retinoid that has been examined in in vitro assays, preclinical animal models and clinical trials as a cancer chemopreventive agent. Its pharmacology, toxicity and mechanisms of action initially suggested an increased therapeutic index relative to native retinoids for the control of tumours of the breast, prostate, bladder, colon, cervix and head and neck. Although fenretinide at the doses and schedules used in several pivotal Phase II and III clinical trials has not been proven to be efficacious in reducing the incidence of cancer or in retarding the development of preneoplastic lesions, encouraging observations regarding unanticipated preventative activity, such as for ovarian cancer control, have arisen from these studies. Research in cancer therapy and the elucidation of molecular pathways activated by fenretinide have also yielded clues about how this agent might be better used in a prevention setting. Current trials are underway to re-examine both dose and schedule of fenretinide administration as well as the target tissues of interest. Investigations of potential synergism between fenretinide and other candidate chemopreventative molecules with complementary mechanisms of action may support future assessments of this prototype cancer prevention drug or its newer analogues.