The primary objective of this review is to explore the hypothesis that folate insufficiency may be important in the pathogenesis of squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck (SCCHN) and that folate repletion may be an effective component of chemoprevention. The main results are that folate insufficiency disrupts DNA global and specific gene methylation patterns such that the activity of certain tumor suppressor genes such as p16 and possibly p53 may be lost. Folate pool imbalance and impaired repair mechanisms may contribute to DNA instability and strand breaks. Sensitive methods exist for identification of individuals with folate insufficiency in contrast to the relatively insensitive conventional serum or red cell folate assays with broad "normal" ranges. The impact of folate supplementation can thus be quantified. Folate imbalance may result from alterations in folate cellular uptake by the reduced folate carrier (RFC) and/or the folate receptor (FR) and polymorphisms in enzymes important in folate retention such as folylpolyglutamate synthetase and in folate modification such as methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR). Known predisposing factors for SCCHN such as alcohol and tobacco carcinogens may influence folate balance. Folate supplementation may reduce primary or secondary risk of cancer. Formal studies of folate sufficiency in persons at risk for or diagnosed and treated for SCCHN are needed to define the role of folate supplementation in the prevention of these cancers.