In Australia, oral cancer accounts for approximately 2–3 per cent of all cancers, and approximately 1 per cent of deaths from cancer. The incidence of intra-oral cancer is gradually increasing. It is now well established that early detection of potentially malignant disease can improve the clinical outcome for patients, and as such it is the responsibility of dentists to identify such lesions early. To facilitate early detection of suspicious oral lesions several clinical methods of detection can be used. In addition to conventional visual screening of oral tissues with the naked eye under projected incandescent or halogen illumination, there are many clinical diagnostic aids that can be undertaken to help detect oral cancer. In this article we explore clinically available modalities that may be used by the general dental practitioner, and highlight their inherent strengths and weaknesses.