Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the oral cavity is a highly invasive tumour of stratified squamous epithelium that spreads through degradation of the basement membrane (BM) and extracellular matrix (ECM). There are currently no reliable tissue or serum markers to predict whether the tumour has metastasized at the time of diagnosis. Verrucous carcinoma (VC) of the oral cavity is a rare low-grade variant of oral SCC that penetrates into the subepithelial connective tissue. Many matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), such as MMP-1, -2, -7, -9, -13, and -14, as well as integrin receptors have been implicated in cancer invasion. Integrin αvβ6 is induced in SCC and appears to be involved in up-regulation of MMP-9 expression by oral keratinocytes and promotion of their migration. The aim of this study was to investigate whether the pattern of MMP expression or that of αvβ6 integrin contributes to the differences in the biological behaviour of oral SCC and VC. The results show that the less aggressive nature of oral VC may be connected to its MMP expression profile. Typically, VCs were devoid of epithelial MMP-3, -7, -9, -12 and -13 expression, compared with SCCs. MMP-19 was expressed by epithelial keratinocytes in hyperproliferative areas of verrucous hyperplasia, VC, and SCC, but was absent in the invasive cancer cell nests of SCC. MMP-26 was expressed by hyperproliferative keratinocytes in VC as well as by invasive cancer cells in SCCs. MMP-10 was expressed widely in the epithelium of all SCC specimens. αvβ6 integrin expression was also detected in some cases of epithelial hyperplasia but was significantly more abundant in cancers at the invasive front. The absence of MMP-7, -9 and -12 from epithelial cells may serve as a good prognostic marker of non-invasive oral carcinoma. Blocking the activity of invasion-specific MMPs or αvβ6 integrin might offer novel therapeutic modalities in early-stage oral carcinoma. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.