Using a sequential elution procedure, the cellular location of Cl−, Na+, Mg2+, K+ and Ca2+ was determined in the lichen Ramalina canariensis from the southwest coast of Portugal. After a dry deposition period, a logarithmic decrease in the extracellular (surface and wall-bound) concentration of Cl−, Na+ and Mg2+ was observed with increasing distance from the coast. The importance of each cellular fraction as an indication of the airborne salts was identified using factorial analysis methods, as was the relationship between the extracellular and intracellular concentration of the saline elements. The factorial analysis showed that the most important elements for the biomonitoring of airborne salinity were Cl−, Na+ and Mg2+. However, for the cations, only the surface and wall-bound (for Na+) fractions seem to be related to sea-salt deposition on the lichens. The intracellular fractions of these elements are relatively independent of the surface and wall-bound concentrations, or reflect some non-linear processes induced by extreme extracellular concentrations. Although they may represent a significant proportion of the total element concentration, intracellular element concentrations are of little value in monitoring salt deposition, due to physiological control by the organism. The use of total analyses, without any fractional differentiation, can be a biased method for biomonitoring the accumulation of salt spray by lichens, because it includes the intracellular fraction, which may be independent of the deposition taking place. The use of the different cellular fractions provides a more informative indication of the deposition of atmospheric elements, while also giving information on any physiological alterations induced by the specific environmental chemical factors, including membrane damage.