The interaction of light within tissue has been used to recognize disease since the mid-1800s. The recent developments of small light sources, detectors, and fiber optic probes provide opportunities to quantitatively measure these interactions, which yield information for diagnosis at the biochemical, structural, or (patho)physiological level within intact tissues. However, because of the strong scattering properties of tissues, the reemitted optical signal is often influenced by changes in biochemistry (as detected by these spectroscopic approaches) and by physiological and pathophysiological changes in tissue scattering. One challenge of biomedical optics is to uncouple the signals influenced by biochemistry, which themselves provide specificity for identifying diseased states, from those influenced by tissue scattering, which are typically unspecific to a pathology. In this review, we describe optical interactions pursued for biomedical applications (fluorescence, fluorescence lifetime, phosphorescence, and Raman from cells, cultures, and tissues) and then provide a descriptive framework for light interaction based upon tissue absorption and scattering properties. Finally, we review important endogenous and exogenous biological chromophores and describe current work to employ these signals for detection and diagnosis of disease.