The cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21/waf1 is regulated by p53-dependent and p53-independent pathways. In addition, mdm2 is an oncogene which forms an auto-regulatory loop with the normal p53 protein and its role has been implicated in oncogenesis. To determine whether a correlation exists between the expression of these gene products, tumor differentiation, tumor staging and radiation therapy, we investigated the expression of p21, p53 and mdm2, and cellular proliferation by Ki-67 (MIB1) labeling index using immunohistochemistry in 88 human oral squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) samples from 56 patients. Tumor expression of all nuclear proteins was scored according to the percentage of positive cancer nuclei, both with the cancer tissue as a whole as well as in different epithelial compartments of differentiation. Positive p21, p53, mdm2 and MIB1 staining was present in 82.4, 67.8, 25.9 and 98.8% of the SCC samples. The staining in different epithelial compartments of differentiation varied: those of p21 and mdm2 present predominantly in suprabasal and upper regions of the tumors: those of p53 and MIB1 in basal and suprabasal regions. Higher levels of p21 expression were seen in actively proliferating tumors (P = 0.025). p21 expression positively correlated with mdm2 expression but not with p53 expression. Moreover, the level of p21 expression was higher in older patients (P = 0.024) and female patients (P = 0.008). There was no significant association among p53, mdm2 and MIB1. Expression of p53 was higher in tumors with poorer cellular differentiation and in younger patients (P = 0.038 and 0.028). There was no association between tumor stage by TNM classification and the expression of any of these gene products or proliferation index. Radiation therapy did not alter the expression of any of these. To conclude, p21 protein was overexpressed in oral SCCs, and this overexpression was related to cell proliferation index and mdm2 expression but independent of p53 protein alteration. Overexpression of p21 alone appeared to be insufficient to suppress tumor progression.