A series of studies have reported a constant global rise in the incidence of type 1 diabetes. Epidemiological and immunological studies have demonstrated that environmental factors may influence the pathogenesis, leading to a cell-mediated pancreatic β-cell destruction associated with humoral immunity. The search for the triggering factor(s) has been going on for the past century, and yet they are still unknown. This review provides an overview of some of the most well-known theories found in the literature: hygiene, viral, vitamin D deficiency, breast milk and cow's milk hypotheses. Although the hygiene hypothesis appears to be the most promising, positive evidence from animal, human and epidemiological studies precludes us from completely discarding any of the other hypotheses. Moreover, due to contrasting evidence in the literature, a single factor is unlikely to cause an increase in the incidence of diabetes all over the world, which suggests that a multifactorial process might be involved. Although the immunological mechanisms are still unclear, there seems to be some overlap between the various hypotheses. It is thought that the emphasis should be shifted from a single to a multifactorial process and that perhaps the ‘balance shift’ model should be considered as a possible explanation for the rise in the incidence of type 1 diabetes.