The caries process in dentin involves the degradation of both mineral and organic matrix. The demineralization has been demonstrated to be caused by bacterial acids. However, the collagen degradation is considered to be initiated by endogenous proteolytic enzymes, mainly collagenolytic matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). This paper aims to relate salivary MMP-8 (or salivary collagenase-2) and tissue inhibitor of MMP (TIMP-1) levels to manifest caries in a large number of subjects. A random sample of 451 adults (aged 18-87 years) living in the south of Sweden was included in this study. Standard clinical examinations were performed, and stimulated saliva was collected and analyzed for concentrations of MMP-8, TIMP-1 and total protein, using an immunofluorometric assay, an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and the Bradford assay, respectively. Salivary numbers of mutans streptococci and lactobacilli were determined using a chair-side kit. Subjects with manifest caries lesions presented with elevated levels of MMP-8 (p < 0.001) as well as total protein, MMP-8/TIMP-1 ratio, bleeding on probing and plaque index (p = 0.05) compared with subjects without manifest caries. Multiple linear regression analysis with caries as the dependent variable revealed MMP-8 as the only significant explanatory variable (p < 0.001). TIMP-1 was not significant in any case. Using MMP-8 as the dependent variable revealed total protein concentration, caries lesions (p ≤ 0.001) and salivary secretion rate (p = 0.05) as explanatory variables. In conclusion, our data reveal that subjects with manifest caries lesions have elevated levels of salivary MMP-8 relative to subjects with no caries lesions.