N‐Nitrosamines are believed to act as carcinogens by alkylating DNA in their ultimate carcinogenic forms which are produced by metabolic activation. Alkylation at certain oxygen sites in DNA, described as “promutagenic,” appears to be of particular significance for mutagenesis and cancer, as indicated by experimental findings. This theoretical study deals with two factors involved in the alkylation of these promutagenic oxygen sites by N‐nitrosamine ultimate carcinogens. The first is the competition between alkylation at the promutagenic O6‐guanine and O4‐thymine sites and that at the nonmutagenic N7‐guanine site, which is here related to the degree of participation of cationic ultimate carcinogens as compared with neutral ultimate carcinogens. Parent dialkylnitrosamines are classified structurally according to their degree of cationic ultimate carcinogen participation and preference for promutagenic alkylation. The second factor is the thermodynamic facileness of alkylation at the O6‐guanine and O4‐thymine sites. Heats of alkylation by candidate ultimate carcinogens are calculated here for numerous parent dialkylnitrosamines. Finally, these two factors are jointly considered in an attempt to correlate them with experimental carcinogenic potency of the parent nitrosamines. Out of the patterns of correlation observed, light is shed on mechanistic factors likely to be involved in the modulation of parent carcinogenic potency. Copyright © 1989 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.