The concept of trade-offs is central to our understanding of life-history evolution. The underlying mechanisms, however, have been little studied. Oxidative stress results from a mismatch between the production of damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the organism's capacity to mitigate their damaging effects. Managing oxidative stress is likely to be a major determinant of life histories, as virtually all activities generate ROS. There is a recent burgeoning of interest in how oxidative stress is related to different components of animal performance. The emphasis to date has been on immediate or short-term effects, but there is an increasing realization that oxidative stress will influence life histories over longer time scales. The concept of oxidative stress is currently used somewhat loosely by many ecologists, and the erroneous assumption often made that dietary antioxidants are necessarily the major line of defence against ROS-induced damage. We summarize current knowledge on how oxidative stress occurs and the different methods for measuring it, and highlight where ecologists can be too simplistic in their approach. We critically review the potential role of oxidative stress in mediating life-history trade-offs, and present a framework for formulating appropriate hypotheses and guiding experimental design. We indicate throughout potentially fruitful areas for further research.