The partitioning of ethanol into mouse brain synaptosomes at 37 degrees C was characterized as a function of ethanol concentration. In addition, the partitioning of ethanol into multilamellar dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC) vesicles was characterized as a function of ethanol concentration and temperature. DPPC liposomes provided a model for ethanol partitioning into a phospholipid bilayer of defined composition allowing comparison to the more complex synaptosomal membrane. The values of the partition coefficients for ethanol depend on the convention used to express concentration in the partition coefficient ratio. We express these concentrations as mole fractions as ethanol in the membrane and aqueous phases. Ethanol partitioning is nonideal (ethanol membrane: buffer partition coefficients vary with total ethanol concentration). In synaptosomes, the partition coefficients vary markedly with concentration and asymptotically approach zero at higher concentrations. In the DPPC system, the variation of the partition coefficient is less pronounced, but significant. The ethanol: DPPC partition coefficients decrease by a factor of 2 at ethanol concentrations above 3.2 x 10(-3) M. This suggests a model involving at least two distinguishable types of interactions of ethanol with the membrane. Ethanol appears to undergo both bulk phase partitioning into the membrane bilayer core and nonspecific binding to the membrane surface. In pure DPPC, bulk phase hydrophobic partitioning predominates. In synaptosomes, nonspecific surface binding appears to be a major interaction. Temperature studies indicate ethanol partitioning into DPPC increases above the phospholipid gel to liquid crystalline phase transition temperature. This suggests a preferred partitioning of ethanol into fluid state lipid. However, significant membrane concentrations of ethanol are found in gel state DPPC.