Previous studies have shown that dental resin composites tested in cell culture produce cytotoxic effects on human gingival tissues. In this study, the cytotoxic potential of resin composites on primary human gingival fibroblast cultures was evaluated, based on inhibition of cellular protein synthesis measured by [35S] methionine incorporation. Both resin content and percentage of monomer conversion were considered as potential causes of cytotoxicity. Three resin composites were selected to provide a range of filler content from 45 to 86 wt%. Duplicate sample discs (1 mm thick x 10 mm diameter) of each composite were polymerized for 15, 30 and 60 s, followed by heat (110 degrees C, 10 min), and the degree of monomer conversion for each sample group was measured using Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometry. Identically fabricated discs were placed into 35 mm culture dishes with gingival fibroblasts and incubated for 24 h at 37 degrees C. The cell monolayers then were labelled at 24 h with [35S] methionine, washed and solubilized; then incorporated radioactivity was quantitated by liquid scintillation spectrometry. For each composite, as the percentage of monomer conversion increased, cellular toxicity decreased. In comparing different composites having similar monomer conversions, it was found that the filler/resin ratio was not the only factor determining the composite's relative toxicity.