Antimicrobial peptides are present in all walks of life, from plants to animals, and they are considered to be endogenous antibiotics. In general, antimicrobial peptides are determinants of the composition of the microbiota and they function to fend off microbes and prevent infections. Antimicrobial peptides eliminate micro-organisms through disruption of their cell membranes. Their importance in human immunity, and in health as well as disease, has only recently been appreciated. The present review provides an introduction to the field of antimicrobial peptides in general and discusses two of the major classes of mammalian antimicrobial peptides: the defensins and the cathelicidins. The review focuses on their structures, their main modes of action and their regulation.