Alpha-, beta- and gamma-cyclodextrins are cyclic hexamers, heptamers, and octamers of glucose, respectively, and thus are hydrophilic; nevertheless, they have the ability to solubilize lipids through the formation of molecular inclusion complexes. The volume of lipophilic space involved in the solubilization process increases with the number of glucose units in the cyclodextrin molecule and, consequently, cyclodextrins were found to have different effects on human erythrocytes: (a) in the induction of shape change from discocyte to spherocyte the potency was observed to be alpha greater than gamma, but with beta-cyclodextrin hemolysis occurred before the change was complete; (b) in the increase of fluorescence intensity of 1-anilinonaphthalene-8-sulfonate in cyclodextrin-pretreated membranes, the observed potency was beta much greater than gamma greater than alpha; (c) in the release of potassium and hemoglobin, the potency was beta greater than alpha greater than gamma. The potencies of cyclodextrin for solubilizing various components of erythrocytes were alpha greater than beta much greater than gamma for phospholipids, beta much greater than gamma greater than alpha for cholesterol and beta much greater than gamma greater than alpha for proteins. The solubilization potencies were derived from concentration/final-effect curves. The above processes occurred without entry of solubilizer into the membrane, since (a) beta-[14C]cyclodextrin did not bind to erythrocytes and (b) cyclodextrins did not enter the cholesterol monolayer. A study of the [3H]cholesterol in erythrocytes indicated that beta-cyclodextrin extracted this lipid from membrane into a new compartment located in the aqueous phase which could equilibrate rapidly with additional erythrocytes. Therefore, the effects of cyclodextrins differ from those of detergents which first incorporate themselves into membranes then extract membrane components into supramolecular micelles.