The unique properties exhibited by nanoscale materials, coupled with the multitude of chemical surface derivatisation possibilities, enable the rational design of multifunctional nanoscopic devices. Such functional devices offer exciting new opportunities in medical research and much effort is currently invested in the area of “nanomedicine”, including: multimodal imaging diagnostic tools, platforms for drug delivery and vectorisation, polyvalent, multicomponent vaccines, and composite devices for “theranostics”. Here we will review the surface derivatisation of nanoparticulate oxides of iron and iron@iron-oxide core-shells. They are attractive candidates for MRI-active therapeutic platforms, being potentially less toxic than lanthanide-based materials, and amenable to functionalisation with ligands. However successful grafting of groups onto the surface of iron-based nanoparticles, thus adding functionality whilst preserving their inherent properties, is one of the most difficult challenges for creating truly useful nanodevices from them. Functionalised catechol-derived ligands have enjoyed success as agents for the masking of superparamagnetic iron-oxide particles, often so as to render them biocompatible with medium to long-term colloidal stability in the complex chemical environments of biological milieux. In this perspective, the opportunities and limitations of functionalising the surfaces of iron-oxide nanoparticles, using coatings containing a catechol-derived anchor, are analysed and discussed, including recent advances using dopamine-terminated stabilising ligands. If light-driven ligand to metal charge transfer (LMCT) processes, and pH-dependent ligand desorption, leading to nanoparticle degradation under physiologically relevant conditions can be suppressed, colloidal stability of samples can be maintained and toxicity ascribed to degradation products avoided. Modulation of the redox behaviour of iron catecholate systems through the introduction of an electron-withdrawing substituent to the aromatic π-system of the catechol is a promising approach towards achieving these goals.