The dynamic and polymicrobial oral microbiome is a direct precursor of diseases such as dental caries and periodontitis, two of the most prevalent microbially induced disorders worldwide. Distinct microenvironments at oral barriers harbour unique microbial communities, which are regulated through sophisticated signalling systems and by host and environmental factors. The collective function of microbial communities is a major driver of homeostasis or dysbiosis and ultimately health or disease. Despite different aetiologies, periodontitis and caries are each driven by a feedforward loop between the microbiota and host factors (inflammation and dietary sugars, respectively) that favours the emergence and persistence of dysbiosis. In this Review, we discuss current knowledge and emerging mechanisms governing oral polymicrobial synergy and dysbiosis that have both enhanced our understanding of pathogenic mechanisms and aided the design of innovative therapeutic approaches for oral diseases.