A mathematical model is presented which examines the extent to which the intestinal epithelium is accessed by drug molecules. Morphological information from the literature for the jejunum, ileum, and colon of the rat and for human jejunum was incorporated. Perturbation theory was used to derive the limiting cases for total access to the entire epithelial surface, for transport by diffusion and by diffusion with convection, respectively. A parameter gamma = square root of (Ph2)/(Db) was identified to provide a measure of the ability of drug molecules to access the entire epithelial surface down to the crypt wells, where P is the cell permeability, D the aqueous diffusion coefficient, h the channel depth between the villi, and b is half the width of the idealized intervillous channel. When gamma << 1, diffusion is not a limitation and the entire surface is fully utilized for absorption of drug. This condition arises with drugs of low permeability and is more likely to be met with colonic than small intestinal epithelium. When gamma >/= 1, diffusion becomes a limitation and then not all of the epithelial surface is functionally accessible to drug molecules, a condition most likely to prevail with drugs of high permeability traversing the jejunum. Furthermore, water flux per se is predicted to have relatively little influence on enhancing surface accessibility. This simple, but quantitative approach showed that the ranking order of permeability jejunum >ileum> colon for low permeable drugs can at least in part be explained by the differences in surface amplification between these different epithelial regions. The analysis also indicates that for highly permeable drugs extreme caution should be exercised in extrapolating permeability measurements in vitro across various preparations and to events in vivo.