The purpose of this study was to investigate in vitro the presence of apoptotic cell death after macrophage stimulation with different ceramic (Al2O3 and ZrO2) and high density polyethylene (HDP) particles. We also analyzed the effects of particle size, concentration, and composition. The J774 mouse macrophage cell line was exposed to commercial particles of different sizes (up to 4.5 microm) and concentrations (up to 500 particles per macrophage). Fluorescence microscopy and DNA laddering were used to investigate the presence of apoptosis in cell cultures after 24 h of incubation. Fluorescence microscopy of propidium iodide stained cells showed two characteristic morphological features that occur in apoptotic cells, namely nuclear condensation and heterogeneity of stain uptake. The effect of ceramic particles on apoptotic nuclear morphology was size- and concentration-dependent and reached a plateau above 150 particles per macrophage at 1.3 microm. With regards to composition, we did not find any difference in cell morphology between Al2O3 and ZrO2. Ceramic and HDP particles induced DNA fragmentation into oligonucleosomes as evidenced by DNA laddering, another characteristic of apoptosis. The induction of DNA laddering was size- and concentration-dependent whereas particle composition (Al2O3 vs. ZrO2 and Al2O3 vs. HDP) had no effect. In conclusion, our results demonstrated that ceramic and HDP particles induce macrophage apoptotic cell death in vitro and open doors for possible modulation of debris-induced periprosthetic osteolysis.