An essential problem in planning clinical non-inferiority or equivalence studies is the specification of the 'irrelevant difference' (irrelevance margin; delta). This quantifies the amount of non-inferiority or difference, respectively, between a new test therapy and an established standard treatment which is to be considered as tolerable. In the past, most recommendations and guidelines for clinical non-inferiority and equivalence studies contained only general statements and formulations concerning the specification of delta. The current unsatisfactory situation was the reason for performing a systematic review of published clinical non-inferiority and equivalence studies. It was the aim to gain an overview on the irrelevance margins used in such studies, and on reasons for choosing the particular margins. For the sake of comparability, the irrelevance margins were converted into standardized differences and odds ratios. Overall, there were 332 non-inferiority or equivalence trials obtained by means of an extensive literature search. The results of the systematic review show that current requirements on the choice of delta and the reality of recent clinical non-inferiority and equivalence trials differ substantially. In about one half of the trials a difference of 0.5 standard deviations or more was regarded as 'irrelevant' explicitly or implicitly. Estimates of standard-placebo differences formed the basis of the irrelevance margin in less than every tenth trial. Reasons for this very low proportion might be (1) the possibly resulting very small irrelevance margins, and (2) unsolved problems of the requirements themselves. Overall, it seems that a more global definition of 'irrelevance' might be warranted.