Administration of silymarin (800 mg/kg i.p.) 30 min before carbon tetrachloride (18 microL/kg i.p.) did not modify total hepatic levels of CCl4 and metabolites in mice, but decreased by 40% the in vivo covalent binding of CCl4 metabolites to hepatic lipids at 2 hr. This pretreatment decreased by 60% the exhalation of ethane during the first hour after CCl4, and decreased by 50% the incidence of liver cell necrosis. In vitro, silymarin (800 micrograms/mL) decreased by 50 to 70% various monooxygenase activities, and decreased by 20% the covalent binding of CCl4 metabolites to microsomal proteins. Silymarin (800 micrograms/mL) decreased by 70% in vitro lipid peroxidation mediated by CCl4 metabolites, and decreased by 90% peroxidation mediated by NADPH alone. Silibinin, one of the three isomers composing silymarin, also decreased carbon tetrachloride-induced lipid peroxidation; this effect, however, was less than that of silymarin in vitro, and was more transient in vivo. Pretreatment with silibinin (800 mg/kg i.p.) 30 min before CCl4 (18 microL/kg i.p.) did not improve SGPT activity or liver histology at 24 hr. We conclude that silymarin prevents carbon tetrachloride-induced lipid peroxidation and hepatotoxicity in mice, firstly, by decreasing the metabolic activation of CCl4, and, secondly, by acting as a chain-breaking antioxidant.