Background: Advanced and recurrent cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma of the scalp and forehead require aggressive surgical excision often resulting in complex defects requiring reconstruction. This study evaluates various microvascular free flap reconstructions in this patient population, including the rarely utilized radial forearm free flap. Patients and methods: A retrospective review of patients undergoing free flap surgeries (n = 47) of the scalp between 1997 and 2011 were included. Patients were divided primarily into two cohorts: a new primary lesion (n = 21) or recurrence (n = 26). Factors examined include patient demographics, indication for surgery, defect, type of flap used, complications (major and minor), and outcomes. Results: The patients were primarily male (n = 34), with a mean age of 67 years (2591). A total of 58 microvascular free flap reconstructions were performed (radial forearm free flap: n = 28, latissimus dorsi: n = 20, rectus abdominis: n = 9, scapula: n = 1). Following reconstruction with a radial forearm free flap, duration of hospitalization was shorter (P = 0.04) and complications rates were similar (P = 0.46). Donor site selection correlated with defect area (P<0.001), but not with the extent of skull defect (P = 0.70). Larger defect areas correlated with higher complications rates (P = 0.03) and longer hospitalization (P = 0.003). Patients were more likely to require multiple reconstructions if referred for a recurrent lesions (P = 0.01) or received prior radiation therapy (P = 0.02). Conclusion: Advanced and recurrent malignancies of the scalp are aggressive and challenging to treat. The radial forearm free flap is an underutilized free flap in the reconstruction of complex scalp defects. © 2012 Sweeny et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.