Near-infrared (NIR) diffuse optical spectroscopy (DOS) and diffuse optical imaging (DOI) show promise as noninvasive clinical techniques for breast cancer screening and diagnosis. Since NIR methods are based on optical contrast between healthy and diseased tissue, it is essential to characterize the sources of endogenous contrast in normal subjects. We report intra- and inter-subject variation and bilateral asymmetry of the optical and physiological parameters of 31 women using a seven-wavelength NIR frequency-domain photon migration (FDPM) instrument. Wavelength-dependent absorption and reduced scattering parameters (μa and μs', respectively) were measured in four major quadrants and the areolar regions of left and right breasts. These values were used to determine tissue concentrations of oxy-(HbO2) and deoxy-(Hb-R) hemoglobin, lipid content, water concentration, and tissue "scatter power." Mean total hemoglobin for premenopausal (PRE) women (20 to 30 μM) is approximately two-fold higher than for postmenopausal (POST) subjects at all positions. POST women have approximately 50% higher lipid content (50 to 60%) than PRE at all positions. Water concentration on average is 1.8-fold higher for PRE subjects (30 to 40%) than POST. These differences are most pronounced when comparing the areolar complex to the other regions of the breast. In premenopausal women, the areolar regions have 40 to 45% increased total hemoglobin concentration (THC), 20 to 25% lower lipid content, and 30 to 60% higher scatter power versus the quadrants. Small-scale (3 cm) changes in optical properties are negligible compared to large-scale variations over all quadrants, where the intrinsic spatial heterogeneity of healthy breast tissue is 20 to 40% for μa and 5 to 12% for μs'. Although no consistent right-left differences are observed in the study population, relative differences between symmetric positions ranged from 18 to 30% for THC, 10 to 40% for adipose, 10 to 25% for water, and 4 to 9% for scattering (674 nm) within an individual.