An appropriate balance between self-renewal and differentiation is crucial for stem cell function during both early development and tissue homeostasis throughout life. Recent evidence from both pluripotent embryonic and adult stem cell studies suggests that this balance is partly regulated by reactive oxygen species (ROS), which, in synchrony with metabolism, mediate the cellular redox state. In this Primer, we summarize what ROS are and how they are generated in the cell, as well as their downstream molecular targets. We then review recent findings that provide molecular insights into how ROS signaling can influence stem cell homeostasis and lineage commitment, and discuss the implications of this for reprogramming and stem cell ageing. We conclude that ROS signaling is an emerging key regulator of multiple stem cell populations.