It has been reported that 80–90% of human cancers may result, in part, from DNA damage. Cell survival depends critically on the stability of our DNA and exquisitely sensitive DNA repair mechanisms have developed as a result. In humans, nucleotide excision repair (NER) protects the DNA against the mutagenic effects of carcinogens and ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure. By preventing mutations from forming in the DNA, the repair machinery ultimately protects us from developing cancers. DNA damage recognition is the rate-limiting step in repair, and although many details of NER have been elucidated, the mechanisms by which DNA damage is recognized remain to be fully determined. Two primary protein complexes have been proposed as the damaged DNA recognition factor in NER: xeroderma pigmentosum protein A–replication protein A (XPA-RPA) and xeroderma pigmentosum protein C-human homolog of RAD23B (XPC-hHR23B). Here we compare the evidence that supports damage detection by these protein complexes and propose a model for DNA damage recognition in NER based on the current understanding of the roles these proteins may play in the processing of DNA lesions. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.