The immunocytochemical expression of cadherins and catenins was examined during the process of oral carcinogenesis by comparing their expression in normal and dysplastic epithelium with primary and metastatic carcinomas. While control epithelium showed normal distribution for P and E cadherin and the catenins, in severe dysplasia P-cadherin was upregulated. In other cases and in carcinoma-in-situ adjacent to infiltrating carcinomas, membranous expression of the cadherins and catenins was reduced or lost. The changes in expression of E-cadherin and the catenins suggest that disruption of the E-cadherin/catenin complex is a late event associated with invasion. In primary carcinomas reduced membranous and cytoplasmic staining were observed for both cadherins and catenins. Abnormal localisation of E-cadherin occurred in the more superficial parts of the better differentiated carcinomas, suggesting abnormality to the E-cadherin complex(es). In contrast, membranous expression of cadherins and catenins was reduced or lost in the deep invasive margin of primary carcinomas and in most poorly differentiated carcinomas. For E-cadherin at least, this reduction appears associated with differentiation, invasion and possibly prognosis. Possible mechanisms involved for changes in expression of the cadherins and associated catenins and areas for further study are discussed.