OBJECTIVES. To review the natural history and biological potential of small renal masses in order to evaluate surveillance as a treatment option. METHODS. Literature search of Medline and additional references from non-Medline-indexed publications concerning surveillance of small renal masses. RESULTS. The natural history and biological potential of small renal masses can still not be unambiguously predicted at present. There seems to be no clear correlation between tumour size and presence of benign histology. The majority of small renal masses grow and the majority are cancer, but one cannot safely assume that a lack of growth on serial CT scans is the confirmation of absence of malignancy. Needle core biopsies could be used to help in decision making. They show a high accuracy for histopathological tumour type but are less accurate in evaluating Fuhrman grade. CONCLUSIONS. At present, surveillance of small renal masses should only be considered in elderly and/or infirm patients with competing health risks, in those with a limited life expectancy, and in those for whom minimal invasive treatment or surgery is not an option. In all other patients, active surveillance should only be considered in the context of a study protocol. Long-term, prospective studies are needed to provide a more accurate assessment of the natural history and metastastic potential of small renal masses.