The applicability of the embryonic stem cell test (EST) as an alternative for in vivo embryotoxicity testing was evaluated for a series of five p-substituted phenols. To this purpose, the potency ranking for this class of compounds derived from the inhibition of cardiomyocyte differentiation in the EST was compared to in vivo embryotoxic potency data obtained from literature and to the potency ranking defined in the in vitro whole embryo culture (WEC) assay. From the results obtained it appears that the EST was able to identify the embryotoxic potential for p-substituted phenols, providing an identical potency ranking compared to the WEC assay. However, the EST was not able to predict an accurate ranking for the phenols compared to their potency observed in vivo. Only phenol, the least potent compound within this series, was correctly ranked. Furthermore, p-mercaptophenol was correctly identified as a relative potent congener of the phenols tested, but its ranking was distorted by p-heptyloxyphenol, of which the toxicity was overestimated in the EST. It is concluded that when attempting to explain the observed disparity in potency rankings between in vitro and in vivo embryotoxicity, the in vitro models should be combined with a kinetic model describing in vivo absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion processes of the compounds. © 2012 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.