Lipid peroxidation often occurs in response to oxidative stress, and a great diversity of aldehydes are formed when lipid hydroperoxides break down in biological systems. Some of these aldehydes are highly reactive and may be considered as second toxic messengers which disseminate and augment initial free radical events. The aldehydes most intensively studied so far are 4-hydroxynonenal, 4-hydroxyhexenal, and malonaldehyde. The purpose of this review is to provide a comprehensive summary on the chemical properties of these aldehydes, the mechanisms of their formation and their occurrence in biological systems and methods for their determination. We will also review the reactions of 4-hydroxyalkenals and malonaldehyde with biomolecules (amino acids, proteins, nucleic acid bases), their metabolism in isolated cells and excretion in whole animals, as well as the many types of biological activities described so far, including cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, chemotactic activity, and effects on cell proliferation and gene expression. Structurally related compounds, such as acrolein, crotonaldehyde, and other 2-alkenals are also briefly discussed, since they have some properties in common with 4-hydroxyalkenals.