Optical spectroscopy, imaging, and therapy tissue phantoms must have the scattering and absorption properties that are characteristic of human tissues, and over the past few decades, many useful models have been created. In this work, an overview of their composition and properties is outlined, by separating matrix, scattering, and absorbing materials, and discussing the benefits and weaknesses in each category. Matrix materials typically are water, gelatin, agar, polyester or epoxy and polyurethane resin, room-temperature vulcanizing (RTV) silicone, or polyvinyl alcohol gels. The water and hydrogel materials provide a soft medium that is biologically and biochemically compatible with addition of organic molecules, and are optimal for scientific laboratory studies. Polyester, polyurethane, and silicone phantoms are essentially permanent matrix compositions that are suitable for routine calibration and testing of established systems. The most common three choices for scatters have been: (1.) lipid based emulsions, (2.) titanium or aluminum oxide powders, and (3.) polymer microspheres. The choice of absorbers varies widely from hemoglobin and cells for biological simulation, to molecular dyes and ink as less biological but more stable absorbers. This review is an attempt to indicate which sets of phantoms are optimal for specific applications, and provide links to studies that characterize main phantom material properties and recipes.