Anthracyclines are potent anticancer agents. Their use is limited by the problem of multidrug resistance (MDR) associated with a decreased intracellular accumulation of drug correlated with the presence, in the membrane of resistant cells, of the P-glycoprotein responsible for an active efflux of the drug. The activity of a drug depends upon its intracellular concentration which itself depends on the kinetics (a) of passive influx (b) of passive efflux and (c) of the P-glycoprotein-mediated efflux of drug across the cell membrane. The ability of an anthracycline to overcome MDR depends largely on the first point. The passive drug uptake is governed by their incorporation into the lipid matrix and both electrostatic and hydrophobic forces seem necessary for the stabilization of anthracyclines into lipid bilayers. The aim of the present study was to determine the relative importance of these two interactions. Using microspectrofluorometry and the observation that the fluorescence of anthracycline is enhanced when the dihydroanthraquinone part is embedded within the lipid bilayer, we have determined the partition coefficient (alternatively, the binding constant) of 12 anthracycline derivatives in large unilamellar vesicles. The anthracyclines were (a) doxorubicin, daunorubicin and idarubicin which, at pH 7.2, bear a single positive charge at the level of the amino group on the sugar, (b) their corresponding neutral 3'-hydroxy derivatives where the amino group in the sugar has been replaced by a hydroxyl, (c) the three 13-hydroxy derivatives, doxorubicinol, daunorubicinol and idarubicinol, (d) pirarubicin and (e) two permanently positively charged derivatives. The large unilamellar vesicles contained phosphatidylcholine with various amounts of phosphatidic acid which is negatively charged and of cholesterol. We came to the conclusion that the efficiency of drug incorporation in the bilayers depends neither on the presence of a positive charge on the drug nor on the presence of anionic phospholipid but on the hydrophobicity of the molecule: the neutral and the positively charged form have the same ability to partition into the bilayer. However, the percentage of each form present should depend on the electrostatic parameters.