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Men have an earlier onset and higher incidence of coronary heart disease than women, independent of environmental risk factor exposure. As a consequence, there has been considerable interest in the potential role of sex hormones in atherogenesis. An emerging body of evidence suggests that sex-specific tissue and cellular characteristics may mediate sex-specific responses to a variety of stimuli. Recent studies have shown that oestrogen, progesterone and androgens all regulate processes integral to human macrophage foam cell formation, a key event in atherogenesis, in a sex-specific manner; findings that may have important implications for understanding the sex gap in atherosclerosis. Physiological levels of 17β-estradiol and progesterone are both associated with a female-specific reduction in cholesteryl ester accumulation in human macrophages. By contrast, androgens increase cholesteryl ester formation in male but not in female donor human macrophages. This review summarizes current data concerning the sex-specific effects of sex hormones on processes important to macrophage foam cell formation and the basic mechanisms responsible for the sex specificity of such effects. Future research in this promising field may eventually lead to the novel concept of ‘sex-specific’ treatments directed at inhibiting atherogenesis.