Peritoneal washing cytology (PWC) is a useful indicator of ovarian surface involvement and peritoneal dissemination by ovarian tumours. It may identify subclinical peritoneal spread and thus provide valuable staging and prognostic information, particularly for non-serous ovarian tumours. The role of PWC as a prognostic indicator for endometrial carcinoma is less clear, due in part to the questionable significance of identifying endometrial tumour cells in the peritoneum. Detection of metastatic carcinoma in PWC is based on the recognition of non-mesothelial cell characteristics. However a number of conditions such as reactive mesothelial cells, endometriosis and endosalpingiosis may mimic this appearance. Cells from these conditions may have a similar presentation in PWC to that of serous borderline tumours and low-grade serous carcinoma. The presence of cilia, lack of single atypical cells, prominent cytoplasmic vacuolation, marked nuclear atypia or two distinct cell populations are features favouring a benign process. Attention to these features along with close correlation with clinical history and the results of surgical pathology should help avoid errors. Additional assistance may be provided by the use of cell blocks and special stains.