Abstract The effect of a series of n-alcohols on the permeability of small, unilamellar dipalmitoyl phosphatidylcholine (DPPC), dimyristoyl phosphatidylcholine (DMPC) and distearoyl phosphatidylcholine (DSPC) vesicles at the gel-to-liquid crystal phase transition temperature was investigated. It was found that the permeability took the form of the transient lysis of a fraction of the population of vesicles. The effect on this lysis of the n-alcohols was seen to be very chain-length dependent, with a minimum at n = 8 (octan-1-ol) for DPPC vesicles. A similar minimum was observed in the presence of 0.1 mM Triton X-100, but the detergent could then interact with certain of the alcohols to produce permanent channels. The results are discussed in terms of the semi-empirical model of Brasseur et al. (1985) Biochim. Biophys. Acta 814, 227–236, for the interaction of the n-alcohols with a DPPC membrane. The effect of various n-alcohols on the outer and inner monolayers of DPPC vesicles was also studied and the results related to their fluidising effect, allowing channels to open at the phase transition temperature.