The use of chemical insecticides continues to play a major role in the control of disease vector populations, which is leading to the global dissemination of insecticide resistance. A greater capacity to detoxify insecticides, due to an increase in the expression or activity of three major enzyme families, also known as metabolic resistance, is one major resistance mechanisms. The esterase family of enzymes hydrolyse ester bonds, which are present in a wide range of insecticides; therefore, these enzymes may be involved in resistance to the main chemicals employed in control programs. Historically, insecticide resistance has driven research on insect esterases and schemes for their classification. Currently, several different nomenclatures are used to describe the esterases of distinct species and a universal standard classification does not exist. The esterase gene family appears to be rapidly evolving and each insect species has a unique complement of detoxification genes with only a few orthologues across species. The examples listed in this review cover different aspects of their biochemical nature. However, they do not appear to contribute to reliably distinguish among the different resistance mechanisms. Presently, the phylogenetic criterion appears to be the best one for esterase classification. Joint genomic, biochemical and microarray studies will help unravel the classification of this complex gene family.