The mechanisms of action of inhibitors of mutagenesis and carcinogenesis are reviewed in the light of our present knowledge. The identified mechanisms are classified into several categories and sub-categories, depending on the stage of intervention in the mutagenesis and carcinogenesis processes, and on the patterns of modulation of the host defense devices. Although a number of the known mechanisms fit into the proposed scheme, the available information on these problems is still fragmentary, and often inhibitors act through multiple mechanisms or can interact with other inhibitors. Moreover, due to the double-edged nature of many protective factors of the organism, and to the wide array of biological properties displayed by several inhibitors, the beneficial effects are in many instances counter-balanced by adverse reactions. Nevertheless, the present data-base on mechanisms of inhibitors, which is expected to grow rapidly in the near future, provides an extremely useful scientific premise for the primary prevention of mutation-related diseases. In this prospect, the elucidation of the underlying mechanisms complements the results emerging from the monitoring of protective end-points in mutagenicity and carcinogenicity test systems.