Longitudinal and cross sections of teeth from 17 species of the Recent dolphins (Delphinoidea and Inioidea) were examined under scanning electron microscope to study the arrangement and ultrastructure of dental tissues with reference to phylogenetic and functional constraints. For most species, enamel had a simple bi-layered structure of radial enamel and an outer layer of prismless enamel. The outer prismless layer varied from 5 to 30 % of enamel thickness. The enamel of Burmeister’s porpoise (Phocoena spinipinnis) was entirely prismless. The prisms had an open sheath; tubules and tuft-like structures were common at the enamel-dentine junction. Cetacean dentine was characterized by irregularly distributed dentinal tubules in a relatively homogenous dentinal matrix. Radial enamel was observed in all Delphinoidea and in the franciscana (Pontoporia blainvillei), whereas the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) had prisms organized in Hunter–Schreger bands. HSB in enamel are regarded as a device for resisting propagation of cracks. These may occur due to increased functional demands, possibly related to the hardness of the species diet. Simplification in tooth shape and reduced biomechanical demands plausibly explain the primitive radial organization among delphinoids and Pontoporia. The HSB structure in the Amazon river dolphin, similar to those of extinct archaeocetes, seems to have secondary functional implications. However, the distribution of HSB in more-basal odontocetes is too poorly known to judge whether the HSB of Inia are a retained plesiomorphic feature or convergence.