Glutathione is an intracellular antioxidant that often becomes depleted in pathologies with high oxidative loads. We investigated the provision of cysteine for glutathione synthesis to the human erythrocyte (red blood cell; RBC). Almost all plasma cysteine exists as cystine, its oxidized form. In vitro, extracellular cystine at 1.0 mM sustained glutathione synthesis in glutathione-depleted RBCs, at a rate of 0.206 ± 0.036 μmol (L RBC)-1min-1 only 20% of the maximum rate obtained with cysteine or N-acetylcysteine. In plasma-free solutions, N-acetylcysteine provides cysteine by intracellular deacetylation but to achieve maximum rates of glutathione synthesis by this process in vivo, plasma N-acetylcysteine concentrations would have to exceed 1.0 mM, which is therapeutically unattainable. 1H-NMR experiments demonstrated that redox exchange reactions between NAC and cystine produce NAC-cysteine, NAC-NAC and cysteine. Calculations using a mathematical model based on these results showed that plasma concentrations of N-acetylcysteine as low as 100 μM, that are attainable therapeutically, could potentially react with plasma cystine to produce ∼50 μM cysteine, that is sufficient to produce maximal rates of glutathione synthesis. We conclude that the mechanism of action of therapeutically administered N-acetylcysteine is to reduce plasma cystine to cysteine that then enters the RBC and sustains glutathione synthesis.