At a workshop coordinated by the WHO Collaborating Centre for Oral Cancer and Pre-cancer in the UK issues related to potentially malignant disorders of the oral cavity were discussed by an expert group. The consensus views of the Working Group are presented in a series of papers. In this report we review the literature on the epidemiology and natural history of potentially malignant disorders (PMD), detailing those characteristics of the patients and lesions thought to be associated with future development of oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC). Older patients, particularly females are more at risk than younger patients; the duration of PMD may be important. Those who have never used tobacco seem at greater risk than smokers. OSCC is more likely with PMD on the lateral and ventral tongue, floor of mouth and retromolar/soft palate complex than with those elsewhere. The vast majority of PMD in which OSCC develop are non-homogenous although 5% of homogenous PMD will develop carcinoma. Large lesions covering several intraoral subsites also appear more at risk.