The toxicity to human bronchial (16-HBE14o-) epithelium cells of nonionic surfactants, polyoxyethylene-10-oleyl ether (C18:1E10), polyoxyethylene-10-dodecyl ether (C12E10), and N,N-dimethyl-dodecylamine-N-oxide (C12AO) alone or in combination with a range of pharmaceutically acceptable oils (namely, ethyl esters and triglyceride oils), was determined with the MTT (3-[4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide) assay. Regardless of the presence of oil, all C12E10- and C12AO-containing systems were toxic at concentrations around or below their critical aggregation concentrations (as determined by surface tension measurements), suggesting that surfactant toxicity was due to the disruption caused by the partitioning of monomeric surfactant into the cell membrane. Systems prepared from C18:1E10 alone or in combination with a low-molecular-weight oil, such as ethyl butyrate or tributyrin, were toxic above their critical aggregation concentration. In contrast, systems prepared from C18:1E10 in combination with a high-molecular-volume oil (e.g., ethyl oleate, Miglyol 812, or soybean oil) were toxic only at concentrations significantly greater than their critical aggregation concentration, suggesting that in these cases surfactant toxicity was mediated by the aggregated form of the surfactant solubilizing components of the cell membrane. In the C18:1E10-stabilized system, it is proposed that toxicity was significantly reduced on incorporation of high-molecular-volume oils because these oils cause formation of a distinct oil core in the aggregates that leads to a reduction in the ability of the system to solubilize components of the cell membrane.