Cells are covered by a surface layer of glycans that is referred to as the ‘glycocalyx’. In this review, we focus on the role of the glycocalyx in vascular diseases (atherosclerosis, stroke, hypertension, kidney disease and sepsis) and cancer. The glycocalyx and its principal glycosaminoglycans [heparan sulphate (HS) and hyaluronic acid (HA)] and core proteins (syndecans and glypicans) are degraded in vascular diseases, leading to a breakdown of the vascular permeability barrier, enhanced access of leucocytes to the arterial intima that propagate inflammation and alteration of endothelial mechanotransduction mechanisms that protect against disease. By contrast, the glycocalyx on cancer cells is generally robust, promoting integrin clustering and growth factor signalling, and mechanotransduction of interstitial flow shear stress that is elevated in tumours to upregulate matrix metalloproteinase release which enhances cell motility and metastasis. HS and HA are consistently elevated on cancer cells and are associated with tumour growth and metastasis. Later, we will review the agents that might be used to enhance or protect the glycocalyx to combat vascular disease, as well as a different set of compounds that can degrade the cancer cell glycocalyx to suppress cell growth and metastasis. It is clear that what is beneficial for either vascular disease or cancer will not be so for the other. The overarching conclusions are that (i) the importance of the glycocalyx in human medicine is only beginning to be recognized, and (ii) more detailed studies of glycocalyx involvement in vascular diseases and cancer will lead to novel treatment modalities.