The protective effect of dietary carotenoid intake on the risk of breast cancer is inconclusive. Moreover, data on dietary carotenoids in relation to breast cancer in non-Western populations are scarce. The aim of the present study was to examine the association between dietary carotenoid intake and the risk of breast cancer among Chinese women. A total of 561 cases and 561 controls who were frequency matched by age (5-year interval) and residence were recruited in the present case–control study. Dietary intake information was collected by a face-to-face interview using a validated FFQ. The OR and 95 % CI were assessed by multivariate logistic regression after adjusting for various potential confounders. An inverse association was observed between the consumption of α-carotene, β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin and lutein/zeaxanthin and the risk of breast cancer. The multivariate-adjusted OR for the highest quartile of intake compared with the lowest quartile of intake were 0·61 (95 % CI 0·43, 0·88) for α-carotene, 0·54 (95 % CI 0·38, 0·78) for β-carotene, 0·38 (95 % CI 0·26, 0·52) for β-cryptoxanthin and 0·49 (95 % CI 0·34, 0·71) for lutein/zeaxanthin. Lycopene intake was not found to be associated with the risk of breast cancer, with the adjusted OR of 0·89 (95 % CI 0·61, 1·30). These inverse associations were more evident among pre-menopausal women and women who were exposed to second-hand smoke. The protective effect of specific carotenoid intake was observed for all subtypes of hormone receptor status of breast cancer. The present study indicated that a greater intake of specific carotenoids was associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer among Chinese women residing in Guangdong.