Statins are the treatment of choice for the management of hypercholesterolaemia because of their proven efficacy and safety profile. They also have an increasing role in managing cardiovascular risk in patients with relatively normal levels of plasma cholesterol. Although all statins share a common mechanism of action, they differ in terms of their chemical structures, pharmacokinetic profiles, and lipid-modifying efficacy. The chemical structures of statins govern their water solubility, which in turn influences their absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion. Lovastatin, pravastatin and simvastatin are derived from fungal metabolites and have elimination half-lives of 1–3 h. Atorvastatin, cerivastatin (withdrawn from clinical use in 2001), fluvastatin, pitavastatin and rosuvastatin are fully synthetic compounds, with elimination half-lives ranging from 1 h for fluvastatin to 19 h for rosuvastatin. Atorvastatin, simvastatin, lovastatin, fluvastatin, cerivastatin and pitavastatin are relatively lipophilic compounds. Lipophilic statins are more susceptible to metabolism by the cytochrome P450 system, except for pitavastatin, which undergoes limited metabolism via this pathway. Pravastatin and rosuvastatin are relatively hydrophilic and not significantly metabolized by cytochrome P450 enzymes. All statins are selective for effect in the liver, largely because of efficient first-pass uptake; passive diffusion through hepatocyte cell membranes is primarily responsible for hepatic uptake of lipophilic statins, while hydrophilic agents are taken up by active carrier-mediated processes. Pravastatin and rosuvastatin show greater hepatoselectivity than lipophilic agents, as well as a reduced potential for uptake by peripheral cells. The bioavailability of the statins differs greatly, from 5% for lovastatin and simvastatin to 60% or greater for cerivastatin and pitavastatin. Clinical studies have demonstrated rosuvastatin to be the most effective for reducing low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, followed by atorvastatin, simvastatin and pravastatin. As a class, statins are generally well tolerated and serious adverse events, including muscle toxicity leading to rhabdomyolysis, are rare. Consideration of the differences between the statins helps to provide a rational basis for their use in clinical practice.