Chemical contaminants released into the in the environment may have adverse effects on (non-target) species, populations and communities. The return of a stressed system to its pre-disturbance or other reference state, i.e. the ecological recovery, may depend on various factors related to the affected taxon, the ecosystem of concern and the type of stressor with consequences for the assessment and management of risks associated with chemical contaminants. Whereas the effects caused by short-term exposure might be acceptable to some extent, the conditions under which ecological recovery can serve as a decision criterion in the environmental risk assessment of chemical stressors remains to be evaluated. For a generic consideration of recovery in the risk assessment of chemicals, we reviewed case studies of natural and artificial aquatic systems and evaluate five aspects that might cause variability in population recovery time: (1) taxonomic differences and life-history variability, (2) factors related to ecosystem type and community processes, (3) type of disturbance, (4) comparison of field and semi-field studies, and (5) effect magnitude, i.e., the decline in population size following disturbance. We discuss our findings with regard to both retrospective assessments and prospective risk assessment.