In order to evaluate the free radical defense systems of melanocytes and their possible correlation with melanoma, we have studied in cultured normal human melanocytes (20), normal melanocytes from melanoma patients (15), and melanoma cells (40) the fatty acid pattern of membrane phospholipids as a target of peroxidative damage and the superoxide dismutase and catalase activities, vitamin E, and ubiquinone levels as intracellular antioxidants. Cells were cultured in the same medium and analyzed at III or IV passage. Compared to the values obtained in normal human melanocytes, melanoma cells showed on average: a) higher levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, b) increased superoxide dismutase and decreased catalase activities, higher vitamin E, and lower ubiquinone levels. Among the normal melanocytes from melanoma patients studied, two groups were differentiated: a) cultures (7) with enzymatic and non-enzymatic antioxidants level similar to those of normal human melanocytes; b) cultures (8) with antioxidant patterns similar to those observed in melanoma cells. Polyunsaturated fatty acids were also increased in the latter group. The results indicate that in melanoma cells and in a percentage of normal melanocytes from melanoma patients, an imbalance in the antioxidant system can be detected that can lead to endogenous generation of reactive oxygen species and to cellular incapability of coping with exogenous peroxidative attacks. These alterations could be correlated with the malignant transformation of cells and with the progression of the disease.