The success of scaffold-based bone regeneration approaches strongly depends on the performance of the biomaterial utilized. Within the efforts of regenerative medicine towards a restitutio ad integrum (i.e. complete reconstruction of a diseased tissue), scaffolds should be completely degraded within an adequate period of time. The degradation of synthetic bone substitute materials involves both chemical dissolution (physicochemical degradation) and resorption (cellular degradation by osteoclasts). Responsible for bone resorption are osteoclasts, cells of haematopoietic origin. Osteoclasts play also a crucial role in bone remodelling, which is essential for the regeneration of bone defects. There is, however, surprisingly limited knowledge about the detailed effects of osteoclasts on biomaterials degradation behaviour. This review covers the relevant fundamental knowledge and progress made in the field of osteoclast activity related to biomaterials used for bone regeneration. In vitro studies with osteoclastic precursor cells on synthetic bone substitute materials show that there are specific parameters that inhibit or enhance resorption. Moreover, analyses of the bone–material interface reveal that biomaterials composition has a significant influence on their degradation in contact with osteoclasts. Crystallinity, grain size, surface bioactivity and density of the surface seem to have a less significant effect on osteoclastic activity. In addition, the topography of the scaffold surface can be tailored to affect the development and spreading of osteoclast cells. The present review also highlights possible areas on which future research is needed and which are relevant to enhance our understanding of the complex role of osteoclasts in bone tissue engineering. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.