A model for the mass sensitivity of Love wave and layer guided shear horizontal acoustic plate mode (SH–APM) sensors is developed by considering the propagation of shear horizontally polarized acoustic waves in a three layer system. A dispersion equation is derived for this three layer system and this is shown to contain the dispersion equation for the two layer system of the substrate and the guiding layer plus a term involving the third layer, which is regarded as a perturbing mass layer. This equation is valid for an arbitrary thickness perturbing mass layer. The perturbation, Δν, of the wave speed for the two-layer system by a thin third layer of density, ρp and thickness Δh is shown to be equal to the mass per unit area multiplied by a function dependent only on the properties of the substrate and the guiding layer, and the operating frequency of the sensor. The independence of the function from the properties of the third layer means that the mass sensitivity of the bare, two-layer, sensor operated about any thickness of the guiding layer can be deduced from the slope of the numerically or experimentally determined dispersion curve. Formulas are also derived for a Love wave on an infinite thickness substrate describing the change in mass sensitivity due to a change in frequency. The consequences of the various formulas for mass sensing applications are illustrated using numerical calculations with parameters describing a (rigid) poly(methylmethacrylate) wave-guiding layer on a finite thickness quartz substrate. These calculations demonstrate that a layer-guided SH–APM can have a mass sensitivity comparable to, or higher, than that of Love waves propagating on the same substrate. The increase in mass sensitivity of the layer guided SH–APMs over previously studied SH–APM sensors is of significance, particularly for liquid sensing applications. The relevance of the dispersion curve to experiments using higher frequencies or frequency hopping and to experiments using thick guiding layers is discussed.