Water contact subjects waste glass to chemical attack that results in the formation of surface alteration layers. Two principal hypotheses have been advanced concerning the effect of surface alteration layers on continued glass corrosion: (1) they act as a mass transport barrier and (2) they influence the chemical affinity of the glass reaction. In general, transport barrier effects have been found to be less important than affinity effects in the corrosion of most high-level nuclear waste glasses. However, they can be important under some circumstances, for example, in a very alkaline solution, in leachants containing Mg ions, or under conditions where the matrix dissolution rate is very low. The latter suggests that physical barrier effect may affect the long-term glass dissolution rate. Surface layers influence glass reaction affinity through the effects of the altered glass and secondary phases on the solution chemistry. The reaction affinity may be controlled by various precipitates and crystalline phases, amorphous silica phases, gel layer, or all the components of the glass. The surface alteration layers influence radionuclide release mainly through colloid formation, crystalline phase incorporation, and gel layer retention. This paper reviews current understanding and uncertainties.