Difference between Air, Vapor & Moisture Barriers

To determine what type of barrier to install, you must first decide what type of element you are trying to restrict. There are a number of different construction materials that can be utilized to restrict air, vapor or water. In order to accurately choose the correct material, you have to also examine the building environment OR... choose Pentoir Spray Foam and have a material that will achieve all three barriers.

What's an air barrier?

An air barrier must first and foremost resist air leakage. Air leakage loads are significantly greater than most designers and architects realize. In the past, many materials were considered suitable air barriers, including building felt, concrete block, building wraps, and gypsum wallboard. Spray Foam insulation is a total air barrier due to it sealing all cracks and crevices completely.

What's a vapor barrier?

Vapor barriers limit the amount of water vapor diffusing through the wall as a result of different vapor pressures. With the advent of modern building science, it has been found that air leakage - and not vapor diffusion - is the real problem. In fact, air leakage accounts for over 200 times the amount of moisture transmitted by diffusion. Spray Foam Insulation can as your air and vapor barrier.

What's a moisture barrier?

The function of a moisture barrier is to keep liquid water from entering the building enclosure. Combined with flashing and other materials, the moisture barrier ensures that there is a shingled assembly to direct liquid water to the exterior. A single material can function as the air barrier, vapor barrier (non-permeable air barrier), and water barrier this single material is PENTOIR SPRAY FOAM!

This article is provided by Spray Foam .com

Vapor Barriers are not to be confused with an air barrier. A vapor barrier is designed to restrict the flow of water vapor through a material, just the same as a air barrier material restricts the flow of air through a material.

Vapor barriers or vapor retarders are intended to control the rate of diffusion into a building assembly.  As a vapor barrier they will control the rate of moisture flow where they are placed. Therefore the vapor barrier does not have to be continuous, does not have to be free of holes, does not have to be sealed, etc.  A hole for example in a vapor barrier will simply mean that there will be more vapor diffusion in that area compared to the other areas where the vapor barrier. 

All materials are permeable, even steel.  The main issue is the degree of their permeable per rating.  Water vapor permenance is measured by the amount of water which will work its way through a material. Normally reported in ng/(Pa•s• m2) units of measure
Most regions require a vapor barrier with a maximum water transmission rate
of 60 ng/(Pa•s•2)

Much work is being done and much discussion is being held on whether vapor barrier should be used at all and if they are used should the water transmission rate be. There is discussion on the need to allow buildings to dry. Keep in mind that during this time period where vapor barriers are being discussed you still need to meet the local building code which may demand it even when Building Science would indicate that it should not be used.

Water vapor is most often transported because of air leakage.  It is normally dealt with by installing a proper air barrier.

Vapor barriers are designed to be installed on the warm side of the insulation.
Water Resistive Barriers are materials which are primarily designed to be used to keep liquid water from entering the building enclosure. Water resistive barriers are specifically designed not to be a vapor barrier.

The minimum water vapor permeance for a water resistive barrier is 300 ng/(Pa•s• m2). Water resistive barriers are combined with flashing and other materials to ensure that there is a shingled assembly to direct liquid water which passes on the cladding system to be directed to the exterior.

Water resistive barriers are designed to be installed on the cold side of the insulation.

Combined air barriers, vapor barriers and water resistive barriers can be provided in a single material. There are also vapor permeable air barriers, and there are water resistive barriers which are not air barriers. Please understand the three separate functions and then determine whether the material you choose provides more that one function and then you need to decide whether you will design your building so it actually performs more that one function.

As an example, you can have two, three or even four air barrier materials in a wall assembly but it will depend on which material you have chosen and how you have connected the air barrier materials together.

Gypsum wallboard, polyethelyne film, exterior grade drywall, self adhered membranes and spray polyurethane foam insulation are all air barrier materials in a specific wall assembly but you need to choose which one is the air barrier and then ensure that you have the air barrier material chosen has been connected.






Fiberglass batts



very high

Fiberglass, loose fill on attic floor



very high

Fiberglass, loose fill in enclosed walls



very high

Cellulose, loose fill on attic floor



very high

Cellulose, dense packed in enclosed walls



very high



Spray foam, open cell






High. ~16


Spray foam, closed cell





Low. ~1

Board foam, expanded polystyrene



Moderate. ~3.5

Board foam, extruded polystyrene



Low. ~1.0

Board foam, foil faced polyisocyanurate



Very low. 0.02

8″ Cinder block

1.11 (total R-value)


very high

4″ Poured concrete

0.32 (total R-value)



4″ Lumber



moderate, ~3