OBJECTIVES: To appraise the quality of published qualitative research in dentistry and identify aspects of quality, which require attention in future research. METHODS: Qualitative research studies on dental topics were appraised using the critical appraisal skills programme (CASP) appraisal framework for qualitative research. The percentage of CASP criteria fully met during the assessment was used as an indication of the quality of each paper. Individual criteria were not weighted. RESULTS: Forty-three qualitative studies were identified for appraisal of which 48% had a dental public health focus. Deficiencies in detail of reporting, research design, methodological rigour, presentation of findings, reflexivity, credibility of findings and relevance of study were identified. Problems with quality were apparent irrespective of journal impact factor, although papers from low impact factor journals exhibited the most deficiencies. Journals with the highest impact factors published the least qualitative research. CONCLUSIONS: The quality of much of the qualitative research published on dental topics is mediocre. Qualitative methods are underutilized in oral health research. If quality guidelines such as the CASP framework are used in the context of a thorough understanding of qualitative research design and data analysis, they can promote good practice and the systematic assessment of qualitative research.