The interpretation of in vitro cytotoxicity data of Cu(II)-1,10-phenanthroline (phen) complexes normally does not take into account the speciation that complexes undergo in cell incubation media and its implications in cellular uptake and mechanisms of action. We synthesize and test the activity of several distinct Cu(II)-phen compounds; up to 24 h of incubation, the cytotoxic activity differs for the Cu complexes and the corresponding free ligands, but for longer incubation times (e.g., 72 h), all compounds display similar activity. Combining the use of several spectroscopic, spectrometric, and electrochemical techniques, the speciation of Cu-phen compounds in cell incubation media is evaluated, indicating that the originally added complex almost totally decomposed and that Cu(II) and phen are mainly bound to bovine serum albumin. Several methods are used to disclose relationships between structure, activity, speciation in incubation media, cellular uptake, distribution of Cu in cells, and cytotoxicity. Contrary to what is reported in most studies, we conclude that interaction with cell components and cell death involves the separate action of Cu ions and phen molecules, not [Cu(phen)n] species. This conclusion should similarly apply to many other Cu-ligand systems reported to date.