Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are a family of molecules that are continuously generated, transformed and consumed in all living organisms as a consequence of aerobic life. The traditional view of these reactive oxygen metabolites is one of oxidative stress and damage that leads to decline of tissue and organ systems in aging and disease. However, emerging data show that ROS produced in certain situations can also contribute to physiology and increased fitness. This Perspective provides a focused discussion on what factors lead ROS molecules to become signal and/or stress agents, highlighting how increasing knowledge of the underlying chemistry of ROS can lead to advances in understanding their disparate contributions to biology. An important facet of this emerging area at the chemistry-biology interface is the development of new tools to study these small molecules and their reactivity in complex biological systems.