Reduction or loss of the intercellular junctions known as desmosomes may contribute to the invasive and metastatic behaviour of various carcinomas. Previous studies have shown that metastasis of oral squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck correlates with a reduction in immunohistochemical staining for desmoplakin and desmoglein at the invasion front. The primary aim of the present study was to extend these observations to include a third component of desmosomes, the glycoprotein desmocollin. An additional aim was to determine whether the differentiation status of tumours is reflected in their staining for cytokeratins 1, 13, and 19, and, if so, whether these parameters correlate with desmosomal staining and/or metastasis. The study included 54 primary tumours of which 28 showed lymph node metastases. The results of this investigation show that tumours can be divided into three groups according to whether they have lost staining for no, one or more than one desmosomal component. A statistically significant correlation was found between the number of desmosomal components lost and metastasis. Tumours could also be divided into five groups according to their staining for different combinations of cytokeratins. Furthermore, differentiation status as indicated both histologically and by cytokeratin staining correlated with reduced desmosomal staining and metastasis. Tumours were also examined for intensity of staining for the adhesion molecule E-cadherin. Reduction in E-cadherin staining was correlated with mode of invasion and with reduction in desmosomal staining, but not with poor differentiation as indicated by cytokeratin staining. The results of this extensive study reinforce the view that adhesive junctions and adhesion molecules contribute to the suppression of tumour invasion and metastasis.