There has been considerable interest in the role of carotenoids in the chemoprevention of cancer. However, few studies have examined the association between intake of specific carotenoids and the risk of epithelial ovarian cancer and the results for carotenoids have been inconclusive. To investigate whether the intake of α-carotene, β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin, and lycopene is inversely associated with ovarian cancer risk, a case–control study was conducted in China during 1999–2000. The cases were 254 patients with histologically confirmed epithelial ovarian cancer and 652 age-matched controls were randomly recruited during the same period. Habitual dietary intake and lifestyle were collected by face-to-face interview using a validated and reliable FFQ. The US Department of Agriculture nutrient composition database was used to calculate the intake of specific carotenoids. Unconditional logistic regression analyses were used to estimate OR and 95 % CI, accounting for age, locality, education, BMI, smoking, tea drinking, parity, oral contraceptive use, hormone replacement therapy, menopausal status, family history of ovarian cancer, physical activity and energy intake. Compared with the highest v. the lowest quartile of intake, the adjusted OR were 0·39 (95 % CI 0·23, 0·66) for α-carotene, 0·51 (95 % CI 0·31, 0·84) for β-carotene, 0·51 (95 % CI 0·31, 0·83) for β-cryptoxanthin, 0·45 (0·27, 0·76) for lutein and zeaxanthin, and 0·33 (95 % CI 0·20, 0·56) for total carotenoids, with statistically significant tests for trend. It is concluded that a higher intake of carotenoids can reduce the risk of epithelial ovarian cancer.