The effect of bulk and surface excitations to inelastic scattering in low-energy electron beam irradiation of multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNTs) is studied using the dielectric formalism. Calculations are based on a semiempirical dielectric response function for MWCNTs determined by means of a many-pole plasmon model with parameters adjusted to available experimental spectroscopic data under theoretical sum-rule constrains. Finite-size effects are considered in the context of electron gas theory via a boundary correction term in the plasmon dispersion relations, thus, allowing a more realistic extrapolation of the electronic excitation spectrum over the whole energy-momentum plane. Energy-loss differential and total inelastic scattering cross sections as a function of electron energy and distance from the surface, valid over the energy range ∼50-30,000 eV, are calculated with the individual contribution of bulk and surface excitations separated and analyzed for the case of normally incident and escaping electrons. The sensitivity of the results to the various approximations for the spatial dispersion of the electronic excitations is quantified. Surface excitations are shown to have a strong influence upon the shape and intensity of the energy-loss differential cross section in the near surface region whereas the general notion of a spatially invariant inelastic mean free path inside the material is found to be of good approximation. © 2011 American Institute of Physics.