The aim was to evaluate the efficacy and safety of volatile anaesthetic for postoperative sedation in adult cardiac surgery patients through a systematic review and meta-analysis. We retrieved randomized controlled trials from MEDLINE, EMBASE, CENTRAL, Web of Science, clinical trials registries, conference proceedings, and reference lists of included articles. Independent reviewers extracted data, including patient characteristics, type of intraoperative anaesthesia, inhaled anaesthetic used, comparator sedation, and outcomes of interest, using pre-piloted forms. We assessed risk of bias using the Cochrane Tool and evaluated the strength of the evidence using the GRADE approach. Eight studies enrolling 610 patients were included. Seven had a high and one a low risk of bias. The times to extubation after intensive care unit (ICU) admission and sedation discontinuation were, respectively, 76 [95% confidence interval (CI) -150 to - 2, I2=79%] and 74 min (95% CI - 126 to - 23, I2=96%) less in patients who were sedated using volatile anaesthetic. There was no difference in ICU or hospital length of stay. Patients who received volatile anaesthetic sedation had troponin concentrations that were 0.71 ng ml-1 (95% CI 0.23-1.2) lower than control patients. Reporting on other outcomes was varied and not suitable for meta-analysis. Volatile anaesthetic sedation may be associated with a shorter time to extubation after cardiac surgery but no change in ICU or hospital length of stay. It is associated with a significantly lower postoperative troponin concentration, but the impact of this on adverse cardiovascular outcomes is uncertain. Blinded randomized trials using intention-to-treat analysis are required. PROSPERO registry number: 2016:CRD42016033874. Available from http://www.crd.york.ac.uk/PROSPERO/display_record.asp?ID=CRD42016033874.