The binary opposition of trusting or not trusting is inadequate to understand the often ambiguous and contradictory ideas people possess about risk regulators, particularly when knowledge and experience of such institutions is limited. The paper reports qualitative and quantitative data from a major study of public perceptions (n = 30 focus groups) of UK risk regulators. We compare the complex and widely different ‘trust profiles’ of two regulatory organisations which are institutionally related (the Health and Safety Executive and the Railways Inspectorate) but very separate in the minds of our participants. The paper develops the notion of critical trust to interrogate the various ways in which people make sense of such organisations, as well as discussing the modes of reasoning that people deploy. The paper argues that views of participants are the outcome of a reconciliation of diverse perceptions concerning the role of the organisation, structural factors and the nature of the regulated risk.