The effects of lipid chain packing and permeant size and shape on permeability across lipid bilayers have been investigated in gel and liquid crystalline dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC) bilayers by a combined NMR line-broadening/dynamic light scattering method using seven short-chain monocarboxylic acids (formic acid, acetic acid, propionic acid, butyric acid, valeric acid, isovaleric acid, and trimethylacetic acid) as permeants. The experimental permeability coefficients are compared with the predictions of a bulk solubility diffusion model in which the bilayer membrane is represented as a slab of bulk hexadecane. Deviations of the observed permeability coefficients (Pm) from the values predicted from solubility diffusion theory (Po) lead to the determination of a correction factor, the permeability decrement f (= Pm/Po), to account for the effects of chain ordering. The natural logarithm of f has been found to correlate linearly with the inverse of the bilayer free surface area with slopes of 25 +/- 2, 36 +/- 3, 45 +/- 8, 32 +/- 12, 33 +/- 4, 49 +/- 12, and 75 +/- 6 A2 for formic acid, acetic acid, propionic acid, butyric acid, valeric acid, isovaleric acid, and trimethylacetic acid, respectively. The slope, which measures the sensitivity of the permeability coefficient of a given permeant to bilayer chain packing, exhibits an excellent linear correlation (r = 0.94) with the minimum cross-sectional area of the permeant and a poor correlation (r = 0.59) with molecular volume, suggesting that in the bilayer interior the permeants prefer to move with their long principal axis along the bilayer normal. Based on these studies, a permeability model combining the effects of bilayer chain packing and permeant size and shape on permeability across lipid membranes is developed.