Protecting the functional mass of insulin-producing β cells of the pancreas is a major therapeutic challenge in patients with type 1 (T1DM) or type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). The gonadal hormone 17β-oestradiol (E2) is involved in reproductive, bone, cardiovascular and neuronal physiology. In rodent models of T1DM and T2DM, treatment with E2 protects pancreatic β cells against oxidative stress, amyloid polypeptide toxicity, lipotoxicity and apoptosis. Three oestrogen receptors (ERs)--ERα, ERβ and the G protein-coupled ER (GPER)--have been identified in rodent and human β cells. Whereas activation of ERα enhances glucose-stimulated insulin biosynthesis, reduces islet toxic lipid accumulation and promotes β-cell survival from proapoptotic stimuli, activation of ERβ increases glucose-stimulated insulin secretion. However, activation of GPER protects β cells from apoptosis, raises glucose-stimulated insulin secretion and lipid homeostasis without affecting insulin biosynthesis. Oestrogens are also improving islet engraftment in rodent models of pancreatic islet transplantation. This Review describes developments in the role of ERs in islet insulin biosynthesis and secretion, lipid homeostasis and survival. Moreover, we discuss why and how enhancing ER action in β cells without the undesirable effect of general oestrogen therapy is a therapeutic avenue to preserve functional β-cell mass in patients with diabetes mellitus.