Despite decreases in atherosclerotic coronary vascular disease over the last several decades, atherosclerosis remains a major cause of mortality in developed nations. One possible contributor to this residual risk is oxidant stress, which is generated by the inflammatory response of atherosclerosis. Although there is a wealth of in vitro, cellular, and animal data supporting a protective role for antioxidant vitamins and nutrients in the atherosclerotic process, the best clinical trials have been negative. This may be due to the fact that antioxidant therapies are applied "too little and too late." This review considers the role of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid in preventing the earliest inflammatory changes in atherosclerosis. It focuses on the three major vascular cell types involved in atherosclerosis: endothelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells, and macrophages. Ascorbate chemistry, recycling, and function are described for these cell types, with emphasis on whether and how the vitamin might affect the inflammatory process. For endothelial cells, ascorbate helps to prevent endothelial dysfunction, stimulates type IV collagen synthesis, and enhances cell proliferation. For vascular smooth muscle cells, ascorbate inhibits dedifferentiation, recruitment, and proliferation in areas of vascular damage. For macrophages, ascorbate decreases oxidant stress related to their activation, decreases uptake and degradation of oxidized LDL in some studies, and enhances several aspects of their function. Although further studies of ascorbate function in these cell types and in novel animal models are needed, available evidence generally supports a salutary role for this vitamin in ameliorating the earliest stages of atherosclerosis.