2',7'-Dichlorofluorescein and dihydrorhodamine 123 were evaluated as probes for detecting changes in intracellular H2O2 in cultured endothelial cells. Stable intracellular levels of these probes were established within 15 min of exposure to the probe in culture medium. With continued presence of the probe in the medium, intracellular levels were unchanged for 1 h. However, if medium without the probes was used after intracellular loading had occurred, there was a greater than 90% loss of intracellular dichlorofluorescin, dichlorofluorescein, and dihydrorhodamine 123 while intracellular rhodamine 123 decreased by only 15%. Exposure of endothelial cells to exogenous 100 microM H2O2 for 1 h increased intracellular rhodamine 123 by 83%, but there was a reproducible decrease of 53% in intracellular dichlorofluorescein. Exposure to 0.05 mM BCNU plus 10 mM aminotriazole for 2 h increased intracellular rhodamine 123 by 111%. In vitro studies of dihydrorhodamine 123 oxidation were similar to previous reports of dichlorofluorescin oxidation. Oxidation of dihydrorhodamine 123 does not occur with H2O2 alone, but is mediated by a variety of secondary H2O2-dependent intracellular reactions including H2O2-cytochrome c and H2O2-Fe2+. Our results suggest that detection of increased oxidation of these probes in endothelial cells is most useful as a marker of a change in general cellular oxidant production.