Chemical probes for free radicals in biology are important tools; fluorescence and chemiluminescence offer high detection sensitivity. This article reviews progress in the development of probes for "reactive oxygen and nitrogen" species, emphasizing the caution needed in their use. Reactive species include hydrogen peroxide; hydroxyl, superoxide, and thiyl radicals; carbonate radical-anion; and nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and peroxynitrite. Probes based on reduced dyes lack selectivity and may require a catalyst for reaction: despite these drawbacks, dichlorodihydrofluorescein and dihydrorhodamine have been used in well over 2,000 studies. Use in cellular systems requires loading into cells, and minimizing leakage. Reactive species can compete with intracellular antioxidants, changes in fluorescence or luminescence possibly reflecting changes in competing antioxidants rather than free radical generation rate. Products being measured can react further with radicals, and intermediate probe radicals are often reactive toward antioxidants and especially oxygen, to generate superoxide. Common probes for superoxide and nitric oxide require activation to a reactive intermediate; activation is not achieved by the radical of interest and the response is thus additionally sensitive to this first step. Rational use of probes requires understanding and quantitation of the mechanistic pathways involved, and of environmental factors such as oxygen and pH. We can build on this framework of knowledge in evaluating new probes.