A systematic review of community-based oral cancer screening programmes published between 1966 and March 2002 was undertaken. Data relating to study design, sampling and characteristics of the study group, interventions, and reported outcomes and diagnostic value of visual screening or adjunctive diagnostic aids were abstracted from 36 articles meeting inclusion and exclusion criteria. From these reports, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of community-based oral cancer visual screening in enhancing the early detection of oral cancer, due to small effect size. While the evidence is fair to support use of toluidine blue as an aid in diagnosis of oral cancer, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the use of this or other adjunctive techniques will increase the detection of oral malignancies in community screening programmes. Targeted clinical examination of high-risk individuals may be more effective than mass screening in facilitating early detection of oral cancers.