The surface modifications of metal and metal oxide nanoparticles with sizes ranging from 7 to 20 nm dispersed in commonly used cell culture medium supplemented with serum are investigated. All the tested nanoparticles adsorb proteins onto their surface, thereby forming a protein corona through a dynamic process evolving towards an irreversible coating (hard protein corona). Despite the fact that the studied nanomaterials have similar characteristics of hydrophobicity and surface charge, different temporal patterns of the protein corona formation are observed that can be considered a fingerprint for nanoparticle identification. Some of the biological and toxicological implications of the formation of the nanoparticle–protein corona are studied using the human monocytic cell line THP-1 exposed to cobalt oxide nanoparticles. Results show that production of reactive oxygen species is decreased if the nanoparticles are preincubated for 48 h with serum.