Histone deacetylase inhibitory prodrugs that are metabolized to carboxylic acid(s) and aldehyde(s) possess antineoplastic properties. Formaldehyde-releasing prodrugs were shown to be the most potent. The objective of this study was to gain understanding on the mode of action of these prodrugs in cancer cells. HL-60 and MCF-7 cells in the presence of N-acetylcysteine or glutathione were protected from death induced by formaldehyde-releasing prodrugs but not from death caused by the homologous acetaldehyde-releasing ones. Cell death induced by the former was accompanied by depletion of intracellular glutathione and increased reactive oxygen species that were attenuated by N-acetylcysteine. At fourfold higher concentration, acetaldehyde-releasing prodrugs increased reactive oxygen species that were further augmented by N-acetylcysteine. In HL-60 cells, formaldehyde-releasing prodrugs dissipated the mitochondrial membrane potential and glutathione or N-acetylcysteine restored it. Although acetaldehyde-releasing prodrugs dissipated mitochondrial membrane potential, it occurred at 20-fold greater concentration and was unaffected by the antioxidants. Formaldehyde-releasing prodrugs abrogated c-myc protein expression and elevated c-Jun and H2AX phosphorylation, N-acetylcysteine partially reversed these changes. Herein, we show that formaldehyde-releasing prodrugs diminish the level of glutathione most likely by forming S-formylglutathione adducts resulting in increase of reactive oxygen species followed by signaling events that lead to cancer cells death.