Endothelial cells are covered with a polysaccharide rich layer more than 400 nm thick, mechanical properties of which limit access of circulating plasma components to endothelial cell membranes. The barrier properties of this endothelial surface layer are deduced from the rate of tracer penetration into the layer and the mechanics of red and white cell movement through capillary microvessels. This review compares the mechanosensor and permeability properties of an inner layer (100-150 nm, close to the endothelial membrane) characterized as a quasi-periodic structure which accounts for key aspects of transvascular exchange and vascular permeability with those of the whole endothelial surface layers. We conclude that many of the barrier properties of the whole surface layer are not representative of the primary fiber matrix forming the molecular filter determining transvascular exchange. The differences between the properties of the whole layer and the inner glycocalyx structures likely reflect dynamic aspects of the endothelial surface layer including tracer binding to specific components, synthesis and degradation of key components, activation of signaling pathways in the endothelial cells when components of the surface layer are lost or degraded, and the spatial distribution of adhesion proteins in microdomains of the endothelial cell membrane.