N-acetylcysteine has been widely used as an antioxidant in vivo and in vitro. Its reaction with four oxidant species has therefore been examined. N-acetylcysteine is a powerful scavenger of hypochlorous acid (H--OCl); low concentrations are able to protect alpha 1-antiproteinase against inactivation by HOCl. N-acetylcysteine also reacts with hydroxyl radical with a rate constant of 1.36 X 10(10) M-1s-1, as determined by pulse radiolysis. It also reacts slowly with H2O2, but no reaction of N-acetylcysteine with superoxide (O2-) could be detected within the limits of our assay procedures.