High concentrations of specific catechins [epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epigallocatechin (EGC) and epicatechin gallate (ECG)] inhibit the proliferation of many different cancer cell lines. The aim of this work was to determine if low concentrations of catechins with and without 4-hydroxytamoxifen (4-OHT) co-treatment would cause significant cytotoxicity in estrogen receptor-positive (ERalpha+) and -negative (ERalpha-) human breast cancer cells. Therefore, MCF-7, T47D, MDA-MB-231 and HS578T cells were incubated with EGCG, EGC or ECG (5-25 microM) individually and in combination with 4-OHT for 7 days. Cell number was determined by the sulforhodamine B cell proliferation assay. As single agents, none of the catechins were cytotoxic to T47D cells, while only EGCG (20 microM) elicited cytotoxicity in MCF-7 cells. Additionally, no benefit was gained by combination treatment with 4-OHT. ERalpha- human breast cancer cells were more susceptible as all three catechins were significantly cytotoxic to HS578T cells at concentrations of 10 microM. In this cell line, combination with 4-OHT did not increase cytotoxicity. However, the most striking results were produced in MDA-MB-231 cells. In this cell line, EGCG (25 microM) produced a greater cytotoxic effect than 4-OHT (1 microM) and the combination of the two resulted in synergistic cytotoxicity. In conclusion, low concentrations of catechins are cytotoxic to ERalpha- human breast cancer cells, and the combination of EGCG and 4-OHT elicits synergistic cytotoxicity in MDA-MB-231 cells.