Regulatory T (T(Reg)) cells are essential for maintaining peripheral tolerance, preventing autoimmune diseases and limiting chronic inflammatory diseases. However, they also limit beneficial responses by suppressing sterilizing immunity and limiting antitumour immunity. Given that T(Reg) cells can have both beneficial and deleterious effects, there is considerable interest in determining their mechanisms of action. In this Review, we describe the basic mechanisms used by T(Reg) cells to mediate suppression and discuss whether one or many of these mechanisms are likely to be crucial for T(Reg)-cell function. In addition, we propose the hypothesis that effector T cells may not be 'innocent' parties in this suppressive process and might in fact potentiate T(Reg)-cell function.