Efficient cleansing of the colon before a colonoscopy or a radiological examination is essential. The osmotically acting cathartics (those given the Anatomical Therapeutic Chemical code A06AD) currently used for this purpose comprise products based on three main substances: sodium phosphate, combinations of polyethylene glycol and electrolyte lavage solutions (PEG-ELS), and magnesium citrate. All these preparations give adequate cleansing results and have similar profiles in terms of the frequency and type of mild to moderate adverse effects. However, serious adverse events, such as severe hyperphosphatemia and irreversible kidney damage owing to acute phosphate nephropathy, have been reported after use of sodium-phosphate-based products. The aim of this Review is to provide an update on the potential safety issues related to the use of osmotically acting cathartics, especially disturbances of renal function and water and electrolyte balance. The available evidence indicates that PEG-ELS-based products are the safest option. Magnesium-citrate-based, hypertonic products should be administered with caution to elderly individuals and patients who are prone to develop disturbances in water and electrolyte balance. Sodium-phosphate-based products can occasionally cause irreversible kidney damage and should not be routinely used in bowel-cleansing procedures.