The hygroscopic growth factor (HGF) of 85 nm and 20 nm marine aerosol particles was measured during January 2006 for a three-week period within the frame of the EU FP6 project MAP (Marine Aerosol Production) winter campaign at the coastal site of Mace Head, using the TDMA technique. The results are compared to aerosol particles produced in a simulation tank by bubbling air through sea water sampled near the station, and through synthetic sea water (inorganic salts). This simulation is assimilated to primary production. Aitken and mode particles (20 nm) and accumulation mode particles (85 nm) both show HGF of 1.92 and 2.01 for particles generated through bubbling in natural and artificial sea water respectively. In the Aitken mode, the marine particles sampled in the atmosphere shows a monomodal HGF slightly lower than the one measured for sea salt particles artificially produced by bubble bursting in natural sea water (HGF = 1.83). This is also the case for the more hygroscopic mode of accumulation mode particles. In addition, the HGF of 85 nm particles observed in the atmosphere during clean marine sectors exhibits half of its population with a 1.4 HGE An external mixture of the accumulation mode marine particles indicates a secondary source of this size of particles, a partial processing during transport, or an inhomogeneity of the sea water composition. A gentle 90 degrees C thermo-desorption results in a significant decrease of the number fraction of moderately hygroscopic (HGF = 1.4) particles in the accumulation mode to the benefit of the seasalt mode, pointing to the presence of semi-volatile compounds with pronounced hydrophobic properties. The thermo-desorption has no effect on the HGF of bubble generated aerosols, neither for synthetic or natural sea water, nor on the atmospheric Aitken mode, indicating that these hydrophobic compounds are secondarily integrated in the particulate phase. No difference between night and day samples is observed on the natural marine aerosols regarding hygroscopicity, but a more pronounced sensitivity to volatilization of the 1.4 HGF mode in the accumulation mode is observed during the day. (c) 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.