Various studies have shown that various cell types can be labeled with iron oxide particles and visualized by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, reported protocols for cell labeling show a large variation in terms of labeling dose and incubation time. It is therefore not clear how different labeling protocols may influence labeling efficiency. Systematic assessment of the effects of various labeling protocols on labeling efficiency of human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) using two different types of iron oxide nanoparticles, i.e. super paramagnetic iron oxide particles (SPIOs) and microparticles of iron oxide (MPIOs), demonstrated that probe concentration, incubation time and particle characteristics all influence the efficiency of label incorporation, label distribution, label retention and cell behavior. For SPIO the optimal labeling protocol consisted of a dose of 12.5 mu g iron/2 ml/9.5 cm(2) and an incubation time of 24 h, resulting in an average iron load of 12.0 pg iron/per cell (uptake efficiency of 9.6%). At 4 h many SPIOs are seen sticking to the outside of the cell instead of being taken up by the cell. For MPIO optimal labeling was obtained with a dose of 50 mu g iron/2 ml/9.5 cm(2). Incubation time was of less importance since most of the particles were already incorporated within 4 h with a 100% labeling efficiency, resulting in an intracellular iron load of 626 pg/cell. MPIO were taken up more efficiently than SPIO and were also better tolerated. HUVEC could be exposed to and contain higher amounts of iron without causing significant cell death, even though MPIO had a much more pronounced effect on cell appearance. Using optimal labeling conditions as found for HUVEC on other cell lines, we observed that different cell types react differently to identical labeling conditions. Consequently, for each cell type separately an optimal protocol has to be established. Copyright (C) 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.