OBJECTIVE: To investigate the in vitro microbicidal and cytocidal potency of monocaprin dissolved in pharmaceutical hydrogel formulations and to evaluate their potential use as vaginal microbicides against sexually transmitted pathogens such as herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), Chlamydia trachomatis, and Neisseria gonorrhoeae. METHODS: Gel formulations were mixed with equal volumes of virus/bacteria suspensions in culture medium and incubated for 1 and 5 minutes. The reduction in virus/bacteria titre was used as a measure of microbicidal activity. Similarly, gels were mixed with human semen to study their effect on leucocytes. The toxicity of the gels was tested in rabbits by the standard vaginal irritation test. RESULTS: Gels containing 20 mM of monocaprin caused a greater than 100,000-fold inactivation of HSV-2 and Neisseria in 1 minute and of Chlamydia in 5 minutes. Similarly, the gels caused a greater than 10,000-fold inactivation of HIV-1 in semen in 1 minute. They caused more than a 10,000-fold reduction in the number of viable leucocytes in semen in 1 minute. No toxic effect on the vaginal mucosa of rabbits was observed after daily exposure for 10 days. CONCLUSIONS: Hydrogels containing monocaprin are potent inactivators of sexually transmitted viruses and bacteria in vitro. This simple lipid seems to be a feasible choice as a mucosal microbicide for prevention of sexually transmitted infections. It is a natural compound found in certain foodstuffs such as milk and is therefore unlikely to cause harmful side effects in the concentrations used.