Caffeine (1,3,7-trimethyl xanthine), an ingredient of coffee, has been investigated for its potential antioxidant activity against oxidative damage to rat liver microsomes. Such damage was induced by three reactive oxygen species of cardinal importance in causing membrane damage in vivo namely hydroxyl radical (.OH), peroxyl radical (ROO.) and singlet oxygen (1O2). The results obtained showed that caffeine was an effective inhibitor of lipid peroxidation, at millimolar concentrations, against all the three reactive species. The extent of inhibition was high against peroxidation induced by .OH, medium against 1O2 and low against ROO. In general, the antioxidant ability of caffeine was similar to that of the established biological antioxidant glutathione and significantly higher than ascorbic acid. Investigations into the possible mechanisms involved in the observed antioxidant effect reveal that the quenching of these reactive species by caffeine may be one of the possible factor responsible. The rate constant of caffeine with .OH was 7.3 x 10(9) M-1 s-1 and with 1O2 it was 2.9 x 10(7) M-1 s-1. Considering their potential for damage, half-life estimates and generation in biological systems, the ability of caffeine to inhibit oxidative damage induced by these reactive species in membranes suggest one more positive attribute of caffeine, whose daily intake as coffee may be considerable in most populations.