Hindered amine light stabilisers (HALS) are the most effective antioxidants currently available for polymer systems in post-production, in-service applications, yet the mechanism of their action is still not fully understood. Structural characterisation of HALS in polymer matrices, particularly the identification of structural modifications brought about by oxidative conditions, is critical to aid mechanistic understanding of the prophylactic effects of these molecules. In this work, electrospray ionisation tandem mass spectrometry (ESI-MS/MS) was applied to the analysis of a suite of commercially available 2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidine-based HALS. Fragmentation mechanisms for the [M + H]+ ions are proposed, which provide a rationale for the product ions observed in the MS/MS and MS3 mass spectra of N-H, N-CH3, N-C(O)CH3 and N-OR containing HALS (where R is an alkyl substituent). A common product ion at m/z 123 was identified for the group of antioxidants containing N-H, N-CH3 or N-C(O)CH3 functionality, and this product ion was employed in precursor ion scans on a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to identify the HALS species present in a crude extract from of a polyester-based coil coating. Using MS/MS, two degradation products were unambiguously identified. This technique provides a simple and selective approach to monitoring HALS structures within complex matrices. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.