Multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) were oxidized in air and acids while varying the treatment time and/or temperature. The goal of this approach was to create the highest density of carboxyl groups with moderate sample loss, which is necessary for nanocomposite applications. In situ Raman experiments allowed real-time observation of the structural changes in MWCNTs upon oxidation. The ratio of the Raman intensities of the D and G bands was used to estimate the concentration of defects. It was found that while an oxidation for 6 h in H2SO4/HNO3 provided the strongest effect, a ‘flash oxidation’ in air (15 min at 550 °C) also leads to an efficient functionalization in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way. Transmission electron microscopy, Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, thermogravimetric analysis and electrophoretic mobility analysis were used to study the oxidized nanotubes. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.