Research indicates that a small population of cancer cells is highly tumorigenic, endowed with the capacity for self-renewal, and has the ability to differentiate into cells that constitute the bulk of tumors. These cells are considered the ''drivers'' of the tumorigenic process in some tumor types, and have been named cancer stem cells (CSC). Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) appears to be involved in the process leading to the acquisition of stemness by epithelial tumor cells. Through this process, cells acquire an invasive phenotype that may contribute to tumor recurrence and metastasis. CSC have been identified in human head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) using markers such as CD133 and CD44 expression, and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) activity. Head and neck cancer stem cells reside primarily in perivascular niches in the invasive fronts where endothelial-cell initiated events contribute to their survival and function. Clinically, CSC enrichment has been shown to be enhanced in recurrent disease, treatment failure and metastasis. CSC represent a novel target of study given their slow growth and innate mechanisms conferring treatment resistance. Further understanding of their unique phenotype may reveal potential molecular targets to improve therapeutic and survival outcomes in patients with HNSCC. Here, we discuss the state-of-the-knowledge on the pathobiology of cancer stem cells, with a focus on the impact of these cells on head and neck tumor progression, metastasis and recurrence due to treatment failure.