Silver nanoparticles (SNPs) are among the most commercialized nanoparticles because of their antibacterial effects. Besides being employed, e.g. as a coating material for sterile surfaces in household articles and appliances, the particles are also used in a broad range of medical applications. Their antibacterial properties make SNPs especially useful for wound disinfection or as a coating material for prostheses and surgical instruments. Because of their optical characteristics, the particles are of increasing interest in biodetection as well. Despite the widespread use of SNPs, there is little knowledge of their toxicity. Time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) and laser post-ionization secondary neutral mass spectrometry (Laser-SNMS) were used to investigate the effects of SNPs on human macrophages derived from THP-1 cells in vitro. For this purpose, macrophages were exposed to SNPs. The SNP concentration ranges were chosen with regard to functional impairments of the macrophages. To optimize the analysis of the macrophages, a special silicon wafer sandwich preparation technique was employed; ToF-SIMS was employed to characterize fragments originating from macrophage cell membranes. With the use of this optimized sample preparation method, the SNP-exposed macrophages were analyzed with ToF-SIMS and with Laser-SNMS. With Laser-SNMS, the three-dimensional distribution of SNPs in cells could be readily detected with very high efficiency, sensitivity, and submicron lateral resolution. We found an accumulation of SNPs directly beneath the cell membrane in a nanoparticular state as well as agglomerations of SNPs inside the cells. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.