Time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToFSIMS) is being applied increasingly to the study of biological systems where the chemical specificity of mass spectrometry and the high lateral resolution imaging capabilities can be exploited. Here we report a comparison of two cell sample preparation methods and demonstrate how they influence the outcome of the ToFSIMS analysis for three-dimensional (3D) imaging of biological cells using our novel buncher-ToF instrument (J105 3D Chemical Imager) equipped with a C60 primary ion beam. Cells were analysed fixed and freeze-dried and non-fixed, frozen-hydrated. It is concluded that maintaining the cells in a non-fixed frozen-hydrated state during the analysis helps reduce chemical redistribution, producing cleaner spectra and improved chemical contrast in both 2D and 3D imaging. Insights into data interpretation are included and we present methods for 3D reconstruction of the data using multivariate analysis techniques. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.