Reports on the effects of carotenoids are conflicting. The present paper examines similarities and differences from contiguous studies in vitro and in vivo. Single-cell gel electrophoresis was used to measure the frequency of single-strand breaks (SSB) in the cell line MOLT-17 (as a model system) and human peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL). MOLT-17 cells were supplemented with β-carotene, lutein or lycopene at a range of concentrations (0·00–8·00 μmol/l) using a liposome delivery method. Uptake was dose-dependent. β-Carotene concentration in the media had no effect on SSB in control cells, but incubation with lycopene or lutein (>2·00 μmol/l) increased the numbers of SSB in control cells. MOLT-17 DNA was less susceptible to oxidative damage (100 μmol H2O2/l, 5 min, 4 °C) following incubation with carotenoids between 0·50 and 1·00 μmol/l; at >1·00 μmol/l the effects were ambiguous. Apparently healthy male volunteers supplemented their habitual diets with lutein, β-carotene or lycopene (natural isolate capsules, 15 mg/d, 4 weeks) in three independent studies, raising plasma concentrations to different extents. Lycopene and lutein had no effect on SSB in control PBL or following oxidative challenge. However, increased plasma β-carotene was associated with more SSB in control cells whilst PBL DNA resistance to oxidative damage ex vivo was unaffected. These results suggest that the carotenoids are capable of exerting two overlapping but distinct effects: antioxidant protection by scavenging DNA-damaging free radicals and modulation of DNA repair mechanisms.