Autophagy is implicated in a wide range of (patho)physiological processes including maintenance of cellular homeostasis, neurodegenerative disorders, aging and cancer. As such, small molecule autophagy modulators are in great demand, both for their ability to act as tools to better understand this essential process and as potential therapeutics. Despite substantial advances in the field, major challenges remain in the development and comprehensive characterization of probes that are specific to autophagy. In this Review, we discuss recent developments in autophagy-modulating small molecules, including the specific challenges faced in the development of activators and inhibitors, and recommend guidelines for their use. Finally, we discuss the potential to hijack the process for targeted protein degradation, an area of great importance in chemical biology and drug discovery.