Sensory hair cells of the inner ear are responsible for translating auditory or vestibular stimuli into electrical energy that can be perceived by the nervous system. Although hair cells are exquisitely mechanically sensitive, they can be easily damaged by excessive stimulation by ototoxic drugs and by the effects of aging. In mammals, auditory hair cells are never replaced, such that cumulative damage to the ear causes progressive and permanent deafness. In contrast, non-mammalian vertebrates are capable of replacing lost hair cells, which has led to efforts to understand the molecular and cellular basis of regenerative responses in different vertebrate species. In this review, we describe recent progress in understanding the limits to hair cell regeneration in mammals and discuss the obstacles that currently exist for therapeutic approaches to hair cell replacement.