Despite the widespread use of silica nanoparticles (SiO2 NPs) in biological and medical fields, their adverse effects have not been clearly elucidated. In this study, spherical SiO2 NPs with a 50 nm diameter were used to study their interaction with HaCaT cells. SiO2 NPs were found to be readily internalized into HaCaT cells and localized in the cytoplasm, lysosomes and autophagosomes. Decreased cell viability and damaged cell membrane integrity showed the cytotoxicity of SiO2 NPs. Significant glutathione depletion and reactive oxygen species generation, which reduced the cellular antioxidant level, could be the major factor of cytotoxicity induced by SiO2 NPs. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.