Activation of the innate immune system by free heme has been proposed as one of the principal consequences of cell-free hemoglobin (Hb) exposure. Nonetheless, in the absence of infection, heme exposures within a hematoma, during hemolysis, or upon systemic administration of Hb (eg, as a Hb-based oxygen carrier) are typically not accompanied by uncontrolled inflammation, challenging the assumption that heme is a major proinflammatory mediator in vivo. Because of its hydrophobic nature, heme liberated from oxidized hemoglobin is rapidly transferred to alternative protein-binding sites (eg, albumin) or to hydrophobic lipid compartments minimizing protein-free heme under in vivo equilibrium conditions. We demonstrate that the capacity of heme to activate human neutrophil granulocytes strictly depends on the availability of non protein-associated heme. In human endothelial cells as well as in mouse macrophage cell cultures and in mouse models of local and systemic heme exposure, protein-associated heme or Hb do not induce inflammatory gene expression over a broad range of exposure conditions. Only experiments in protein-free culture medium demonstrated a weak capacity of heme-solutions to induce toll-like receptor-(TLR4) dependent TNF-alpha expression in macrophages. Our data suggests that the equilibrium-state of free and protein-associated heme critically determines the proinflammatory capacity of the metallo-porphyrin. Based on these data it appears unlikely that inflammation-promoting equilibrium conditions could ever occur in vivo.