Abstract Alpha-lipoic acid has been shown to possess cancer-cell-killing activity via activation of the apoptosis pathway. In this study, the cytotoxic activities of alpha-lipoic and dihydro-alpha-lipoic acid were compared in HL-60 cells. The cell-killing activity of dihydro-alpha-lipoic acid was higher than that of alpha-lipoic acid. Both alpha-lipoic and dihydro-alpha-lipoic acid induced caspase-3 cleavage and internucleosomal DNA fragmentation in treated cells. On the other hand, apparent necrotic or late-stage apoptotic cell populations could be detected in dihydro-alpha-lipoic acid cells but not in those treated with alpha-lipoic acid. Moreover, dihydro-alpha-lipoic acid, but not alpha-lipoic acid, induced marked mitochondrial permeability transition. Antioxidants could not prevent dihydro-alpha-lipoic- or alpha-lipoic-acid-induced cell death. In addition, dihydro-alpha-lipoic and alpha-lipoic acid did not up-regulate cellular reactive oxygen level. These results indicated that dihydro-alpha-lipoic acid exerts more potent cytotoxicity than alpha-lipoic acid through different cytotoxic actions.