Oral cancer is among the most common malignancies worldwide, therefore early detection and treatment is imperative. The 5-year survival rate has remained at a dismal 50% for the past several decades. The main reason for the poor survival rate is the fact that most of the oral cancers, despite the general accessibility of the oral cavity, are not diagnosed until the advanced stage. Early detection of the oral tumors and its precursor lesions may be the most effective means to improve clinical outcome and cure most patients. One of the emerging technologies is the use of non-invasive in vivo tissue imaging to capture the molecular changes at high-resolution to improve the detection capability of early stage disease. This review will discuss the use of optical probes and highlight the role of optical imaging such as autofluorescence, fluorescence diagnosis (FD), laser confocal endomicroscopy (LCE), surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), optical coherence tomography (OCT) and confocal reflectance microscopy (CRM) in early oral cancer detection. FD is a promising method to differentiate cancerous lesions from benign, thus helping in the determination of adequate resolution of surgical resection margin. LCE offers in vivo cellular imaging of tissue structures from surface to subsurface layers and has demonstrated the potential to be used as a minimally invasive optical biopsy technique for early diagnosis of oral cancer lesions. SERS was able to differentiate between normal and oral cancer patients based on the spectra acquired from saliva of patients. OCT has been used to visualize the detailed histological features of the oral lesions with an imaging depth down to 2-3 mm. CRM is an optical tool to noninvasively image tissue with near histological resolution. These comprehensive diagnostic modalities can also be used to define surgical margin and to provide a direct assessment of the therapeutic effectiveness.