this study sought to describe the main characteristics of epidemiological studies that investigated the association between socioeconomic conditions and head and neck cancer. research was carried out on the medline (international science literature), lilacs (latin american and caribbean health sciences literature) and scielo (scientific electronic library online) databases, as well as the references cited in the articles obtained through the primary search of the aforementioned databases. the publication period considered included 38 years (1970-2007) and the analysis was restricted to articles in spanish, english or portuguese. twenty-five studies were selected, 15 that outlined case-control, four ecological and six that combined information from official databases, such as censuses and cancer or death records. most cases reported an association between lower socioeconomic conditions and head and neck cancer. the most used indexes were occupation and education. few studies investigated medication, aiming to point out which proximal factors operate in the investigated association. additional studies, with uniform criteria to effect the adjustments in the regression models and sufficient samples, are required to inquire this dimension.