Antioxidant and antipromotional effects of the soybean isoflavone genistein have been studied in HL-60 cells and the mouse skin tumorigenesis model. Effects of structure-related flavone/isoflavones on hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) production by 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA)-activated HL-60 cells and superoxide anion (O2−) generation by xanthine/xanthine oxidase were compared. Of tested isoflavones, genistein is the most potent inhibitor among TPA-induced H2O2 formation by (dimethyl sulfoxide) DMSO-differentiated HL-60 cells, daidzein is second, and aplgenin and biochanin A show little effect. In contrast, genistein, aplgenin, and prunectin are equally potent in inhibiting O2− generation by xanthine/xanthine oxidase, with daidzein showing a moderate inhibitory effect and biochanin A exhibiting no effect. These results suggest that the antioxidant properties of isoflavones are structurally related and the hydroxy group at Position 4′ is crucial in both systems. Dietary administration of 250 ppm genistein for 30 days significantly enhances the activities of antioxidant enzymes in the skin and small intestine of mice. Further studies show that genistein significantly inhibits TPA-induced proto-oncogene expression (c-fos) in mouse skin in a dose-dependent manner. In a two-stage skin carcinogenesis study, low levels of genistein (1 and 5 μmol) significantly prolong tumor latency and decrease tumor multiplicity by approximately 50%. We conclude that genistein's antioxidant properties and antiproliferative effects may be responsible for its anticarcinogenic effect. Its high content in soybeans and relatively high bioavailability favor genistein as a promising candidate for the prevention of human cancers. © 1995, SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.