We present a simple molecular approach to control the lipophilic/ hydrophilic nature of photoluminescent carbon dots (CDs) based on pyrolysis of alkyl gallate precursors. Depending on the gallic acid derivative used, CDs with different alkyl groups (methyl, propyl, lauryl) on the surface can be obtained by isothermal heating at 270 C. This precursor-derived approach allows not only the control of lipophilicity but also the length of the particular alkyl chain enables the control over both the size and photoluminescence (PL) of the prepared CDs. Moreover, the alkyl chains on the CDs surface can be readily converted to carboxylate groups via a mild base hydrolysis to obtain water dispersible CDs with a record biocompatibility. The observed differences in PL properties of CDs and time-resolved PL data, including contributions from carbogenic cores and surface functional group, are rationalized and discussed in detail using time-dependent density functional theory (TD-DFT) calculations. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.