Resveratrol has gained tremendous interest owing to multiple reported health-beneficial effects. However, the underlying key mechanism of action of this natural product remained largely controversial. Here, we demonstrate that under physiologically relevant conditions major biological effects of resveratrol can be attributed to its generation of oxidation products such as reactive oxygen species (ROS). At low nontoxic concentrations (in general <50 μM), treatment with resveratrol increased viability in a set of representative cell models, whereas application of quenchers of ROS completely truncated these beneficial effects. Notably, resveratrol treatment led to mild, Nrf2-specific gene expression reprogramming. For example, in primary epidermal keratinocytes derived from human skin this coordinated process resulted in a 1.3-fold increase of endogenously generated glutathione (GSH) and subsequently in a quantitative reduction of the cellular redox environment by 2.61 mV mmol GSH per g protein. After induction of oxidative stress by using 0.78% (v/v) ethanol, endogenous generation of ROS was consequently reduced by 24% in resveratrol pre-treated cells. In contrast to the common perception that resveratrol acts mainly as a chemical antioxidant or as a target protein-specific ligand, we propose that the cellular response to resveratrol treatment is essentially based on oxidative triggering. In physiological microenvironments this molecular training can lead to hormetic shifting of cellular defense towards a more reductive state to improve physiological resilience to oxidative stress.