Reverse osmosis (RO) is currently the most important desalination technology and it is experiencing significant growth. The objective of this paper is to review the historical and current development of RO membrane materials which are the key determinants of separation performance and water productivity, and hence to define performance targets for those who are developing new RO membrane materials. The chemistry, synthesis mechanism(s) and desalination performance of various RO membranes are discussed from the point of view of membrane materials science. The review starts with the first generation of asymmetric polymeric membranes and finishes with current proposals for nano-structured membrane materials. The paper provides an overview of RO performance in relation to membrane materials and methods of synthesis. To date polymeric membranes have dominated the RO desalination industry. From the late 1950s to the 1980s the research effort focussed on the search for optimum polymeric membrane materials. In subsequent decades the performance of RO membranes has been optimised via control of membrane formation reactions, and the use of poly-condensation catalysts and additives. The performance of state-of-the-art RO membranes has been highlighted. Nevertheless, the advances in membrane permselectivity in the past decade has been relatively slow, and membrane fouling remains a severe problem. The emergence of nano-technology in membrane materials science could offer an attractive alternative to polymeric materials. Hence nano-structured membranes are discussed in this review including zeolite membranes, thin film nano-composite membranes, carbon nano-tube membranes, and biomimetic membranes. It is proposed that these novel materials represent the most likely opportunities for enhanced RO desalination performance in the future, but that a number of challenges remain with regard to their practical implementation.