The mechanism of lipid peroxidation and the manner in which antioxidants function is reviewed. beta-Carotene is a purported anticancer agent, which is believed by some to have antioxidant action of a radical-trapping type. However, definitive experimental support for such action has been lacking. New experiments in vitro show that beta-carotene belongs to a previously unknown class of biological antioxidants. Specifically, it exhibits good radical-trapping antioxidant behavior only at partial pressures of oxygen significantly less than 150 torr, the pressure of oxygen in normal air. Such low oxygen partial pressures are found in most tissues under physiological conditions. At higher oxygen pressures, beta-carotene loses its antioxidant activity and shows an autocatalytic, prooxidant effect, particularly at relatively high concentrations. Similar oxygen-pressure-dependent behavior may be shown by other compounds containing many conjugated double bonds.