The determination of salicylic, p-aminosalicylic and 5-fluorosalicylic acids was investigated using terbium-sensitized luminescence in aqueous solutions. Formation of a ternary chelate between terbium, EDTA and the salicylic acid requires dissociation of the phenol group which is adjacent to the dissociated carboxylic group. The reaction is obtained in alkaline solutions and is enhanced in the presence of cetyltrimethylammonium chloride. As evidenced by absorbance and fluorescence measurements, the cationic surfactant plays an important role in the formation of the ternary chelate and then terbium luminescence depends mainly on the extent of chelate formation. Linearity is found over more than four orders of magnitude and detection limits are in the range (2-4) x 10(-10) mol l-1 for the three acids.