Silymarin, the purified extract from milk thistle Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn, consists mainly of four isomeric flavonolignans: silibinin, isosilibinin, silidianin, and silichristin. The present study was carried out to evaluate the protective potential of silymarin in human erythrocytes against in vitro exposure to the carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene (B(a)P). Erythrocytes isolated from human blood were divided into four groups and treated with Vehicle [Group I], B(a)P (300 μM) [Group II], Silymarin (500 μM) + B(a)P (300 μM) [Group III], and Silymarin alone (500 μM)] [Group IV]. Silymarin treatment maintains the integrity of erythrocytes by preventing hemolysis, protein thiol oxidation and by decreasing the activity of AChE. SEM observations indicate that B(a)P induced significant alteration in the morphology of erythrocytes to echinocytes, which may be due to the interaction of B(a)P with the membrane's outer phopholipid monolayer. The light microscopic and SEM images show that silymarin treatment maintains the normal discocytic morphology of erythrocytes. The protective effect of silymarin might be attributed to its chemical structure and membranotrophic nature. The components silibinin, silydianin, and silychristin have OH in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th carbon atoms that may account for its increased antioxidant activity and removal of ROS formed during B(a)P metabolism. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Environ Toxicol 29: 165–175, 2014.