The fullest potential for in vitro evaluation of toxicity will be realised in the context of the process of assessing the risk of human toxicity. This article is an attempt to clarify what contributions can be made by in vitro tests and what types of in vitro test can best be used. In vitro tests are clarified according to the type of biological endpoint evaluated, first into tests for general ... [Show full abstract] (‘basal’) cytotoxicity and, secondly, into tests for differentiated cell function. The role of each type of test is analysed and it is suggested that tests for general cytotoxicity, as opposed to differentiated function, are difficult to interpret in terms of in vivo toxicity. A general approach to evaluating in vitro tests is described, and a strategy for using these tests is proposed.