Leukoplakia is the most frequent oral precancerous lesion and shows a variable rate of malignant transformation. We hypothesised that the detection of molecular alterations, like the promoter hypermethylation of DNA, in oral cytological samples from patients at risk of developing primary or recurrent tumours could be a valuable diagnostic and prognostic tool in the management of these lesions. Two groups of patients with differing risks of developing oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) were analysed. DNA was extracted from the oral rinse of each patient. The methylation status of the p16, p14 and MGMT gene promoters was determined using a methylation-specific polymerase chain reaction (MSP). Methylation of p16 and MGMT was observed in 44 and 56% of the oral samples, respectively. Only 12% of the cases showed p14 methylation. DNA hypermethylation was more frequent in patients with previous OSCC. DNA promoter hypermethylation is frequent during early oral carcinogenesis and even more so in the later stages. MSP using oral rinses is a non-invasive and highly sensitive technique which could be used to monitor patients with precancerous and cancerous oral lesions.