The recovery characteristics of desflurane and sevoflurane were compared when used for maintenance of ambulatory anesthesia. After obtaining informed consent, 42 healthy, unpremedicated women undergoing laparoscopic sterilization procedures were studied. Anesthesia was induced with propofol, 1.5-2.0 mg/kg, and maintained with either desflurane 3%-6% (n = 21) or sevoflurane 1%-2% (n = 21) with 60% nitrous oxide in oxygen. Intraoperative analgesia and neuromuscular block was achieved using fentanyl and vecuronium, respectively. The inhaled anesthetics were titrated to achieve an adequate clinical 'depth of anesthesia' and to maintain mean arterial pressure (MAP) within 20% of the preinduction baseline values. Visual analog scales (VAS) and the digit-symbol substitution test (DSST) were performed preoperatively and at 30-min intervals during the recovery period. There were no differences between the two groups in the total doses of propofol, fentanyl, or vecuronium. Heart rate (HR) values were lower in the sevoflurane group during the induction-to-incision period. However, HR and MAP were otherwise similar during the maintenance and recovery periods. Use of desflurane led to a more rapid emergence (4.8 ± 2.4 vs 7.8 ± 3.8 min) and shorter time to extubation (5.1 ± 2.2 vs 8.2 ± 4.2 min) compared to sevoflurane (mean values ± SD). Intermediate recovery times, postoperative VAS and DSST scores, and side effects were similar in the two treatment groups. Although sevoflurane was associated with a slower emergence from anesthesia than desflurane after laparoscopic surgery, recovery of cognitive function and discharge times were similar in the two anesthetic groups. Thus, it would appear that sevoflurane is an acceptable alternative to desflurane for maintenance of outpatient anesthesia. However, the pharmacoeconomic impact (if any) of the slower emergence with sevoflurane is yet to be determined.