New data on the permeabilities of hydrophilic markers in two commonly used in vitro models, i.e., excised intestinal segments from the rat and monolayers of Caco-2 cells, are presented. The results are compared to human in vivo data. Two groups of hydrophilic marker molecules were tested: (1) monodisperse polyethylene glycols of molecular weights ranging from 194 to 502 g/mol and (2) a heterogeneous group of molecules consisting of urea, creatinine, erythritol, and mannitol (60-182 g/mol). The permeabilities of the marker molecules showed a nonlinear dependence on the molecular weight and decreased in the order rat ileum > rat colon > Caco-2 cells. Surprisingly, the polyethylene glycols permeated more easily than the other marker molecules, indicating that characteristics other than molecular weight, e.g., the flexibility of the structure, may also be important for permeation through the membrane. Comparisons with the published permeability profiles of polyethylene glycols in human intestinal segments in vivo (i.e., calculated permeability coefficients as a function of molecular weight) indicate that the human intestine is more permeable than the in vitro models. However, the permeability profiles of the corresponding segments in the human intestine and the in vitro models were comparable. Thus, good correlations were established between permeabilities of the human ileum and rat ileum and between those of human colon, rat colon, and the Caco-2 cells. We conclude that the paracellular absorption in humans can be studied mechanistically in these in vitro models.