Background: Oocyte number is established early in life before a gradual loss of this ovarian reserve during reproductive life until oocyte availability becomes limiting at the menopause. Although there is a large genetic component to the ovarian reserve achieved before birth, other influences including the maternal endocrine and nutritional milieu, and environmental factors may represent important developmental determinants. Environmental and nutritional factors may also modify the downward trajectory of ovarian reserve in adult life. The combination of these early and later life influences has the potential to lead to diminished ovarian reserve, compromising fertility in later reproductive years and altering age at natural menopause. Methods: Literature searches of the ISI Web of Knowledge database were carried out using the main terms 'ovarian reserve' and 'menopause AND age' in conjunction with a range of other terms encompassing a variety of factors with potential effects on ovarian reserve. The various searches were inspected manually and the relevant papers selected for critical analysis and interpretation. Results: Evidence was identified supporting the view that elevated prenatal androgens have an adverse effect on the early establishment of ovarian reserve, although the implications for ovarian reserve in the polycystic ovary syndrome (which may also be programmed through prenatal androgen exposure) remain uncertain. Recent evidence is cited suggesting that effects of maternal nutrient restriction on ovarian reserve may also involve changes in prenatal androgen exposure. A general rationale is developed through examination of evidence which emphasizes the roles of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) and the estrogen receptor (ER) systems in ovarian reserve modulation. Because of their similarity to the natural ligands, many environmental compounds have the ability to bind to these receptors (albeit at lower affinities) and thereby have the potential to influence either the initial setting of ovarian reserve during development or the trajectory of ovarian reserve during adult life. For example, exposure to compounds in cigarette smoke may accelerate loss of ovarian reserve in smokers leading to diminished ovarian reserve, earlier age at last child and earlier menopause. Socioenocomic factors are clearly associated with age at natural menopause, with correlations with economic status and education level. However, such effects in western societies are in general small, and the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Conclusions: Exposure to many environmental compounds, particularly to those that leach from plastics and other synthetic materials, is commonplace in modern societies to the extent that many are found at measurable concentrations in body fluids within most of the population. Relating fluid levels of individual compounds to parameters reflecting ovarian reserve in selected populations appears to be an effective way forward and, indeed, some early-stage findings do show some cause for concern. There is a pressing need for the development of practical advice enabling women to minimize their intake of AHR/ER ligands, perhaps through dietary/cosmetic choices or improved food packaging.