Considerable experimental and epidemiological evidence suggests that elevated endogenous sex steroids - notably androgens and oestrogens - promote breast tumour development. In spite of this evidence, postmenopausal androgen replacement therapy with dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) or testosterone has been advocated for the prevention of osteoporosis and improved sexual well-being. We have conducted a case-control study nested within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Levels of DHEA sulphate (DHEAS), (Delta4-androstenedione), testosterone, oestrone, oestradiol and sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG) were measured in prediagnostic serum samples of 677 postmenopausal women who subsequently developed breast cancer and 1309 matched control subjects. Levels of free testosterone and free oestradiol were calculated from absolute concentrations of testosterone, oestradiol and SHBG. Logistic regression models were used to estimate relative risks of breast cancer by quintiles of hormone concentrations. For all sex steroids -the androgens as well as the oestrogens - elevated serum levels were positively associated with breast cancer risk, while SHBG levels were inversely related to risk. For the androgens, relative risk estimates (95% confidence intervals) between the top and bottom quintiles of the exposure distribution were: DHEAS 1.69 (1.23-2.33), androstenedione 1.94 (1.40-2.69), testosterone 1.85 (1.33-2.57) and free testosterone 2.50 (1.76-3.55). For the oestrogens, relative risk estimates were: oestrone 2.07 (1.42-3.02), oestradiol 2.28 (1.61-3.23) and free oestradiol (odds ratios 2.13 (1.52-2.98)). Adjustments for body mass index or other potential confounding factors did not substantially alter any of these relative risk estimates. Our results have shown that, among postmenopausal women, not only elevated serum oestrogens but also serum androgens are associated with increased breast cancer risk. Since DHEAS and androstenedione are largely of adrenal origin in postmenopausal women, our results indicated that elevated adrenal androgen synthesis is a risk factor for breast cancer. The results from this study caution against the use of DHEA(S), or other androgens, for postmenopausal androgen replacement therapy.