Is Salt an Element?

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of salt is the kind in your kitchen that you add to food for taste. But table salt is just one of the many salts. In fact, from a chemistry perspective, the term salt generally describes any substance that is produced by the reaction of a positively charged acid with a negatively charged base. Some salts occur naturally and are found in seawater. Regardless of their origin, all salts share some common characteristics, including their ionic bonds, crystalline structure as a solid, electrical conductivity when melted or in solution, without forgetting their relatively high melting points. This brings us to a very important question.

Is salt an element? The short answer is no. That’s because it’s formed by joining more than one element. An example is sodium chloride, which is clearly made up of sodium atom acting as cation and chlorine atom acting as the anion. I’ll go further and describe salt as an ionic compound since it’s made up of ions of different elements.

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Whether occurring naturally or made by the neutralisation process, salt is an incredibly important substance. Each salt has a positive and a negative charge and as such, has the desire to bond. It’s this property that makes salt multifunctional; you might even be surprised to learn that it has thousands of uses that go far beyond food production. Salt is a chemical compound with a number of interesting properties as you are going to see throughout this text. Stay with me as I expound on this topic and cover some of the important questions you might have about salt.

Is Salt An Element?

Salt is one of the most common ingredients used in food production. Most people consume salt every day, either adding it directly to food or consuming it indirectly in processed foods, but what is the science behind it, how is it formed, its characteristics, what are the different kinds? Read on to find out.

As I had mentioned earlier, salt in chemistry refers to a chemical compound that consists of positively and negatively charged ions. And due to their oppositely charged ions, they are attracted to each other with an electrostatic force of attraction, which is called an ionic bond. This compound has a related number of cations and anions, which makes it electrically neutral (without a net charge). In fact, the pH of salt is 7, which means it is neutral in nature; that is, it is neither acidic nor basic.

Back to today’s topic, salt is considered a compound and not an element. I’m going to explain this with an example of sodium chloride, popularly known as table salt. Sodium chloride, whose chemical formula is NaCl, is a compound because it’s made by adding together two very reactive elements, namely:

Sodium

The element sodium (Na) has 11 electrons and its electronic configuration is 2, 8, 1, which can also be represented as 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s1. Sodium has to lose one electron for it to achieve a stable configuration.

Chlorine

The element chlorine (Cl) has a total of 17 electrons and its electronic configuration is 2, 8, 7, which can also be represented as 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p5. Chlorine has to gain one electron to achieve a stable configuration.

By combining sodium and chlorine, sodium losses its extra electron to chlorine, allowing both atoms to achieve a stable electron configuration. Sodium is a very reactive metal and on its own, it is dangerous to ingest as it ignites when in contact with water. For instance, it can react with the sweat on your hands to form a very corrosive substance called sodium hydroxide. Chlorine, on the other hand, is just as reactive. It is a pale yellow, corrosive gas that should not be inhaled as it’s poisonous. When these two hazardous elements come together, they react to form the ionic compound known as sodium chloride (NaCl), known simply as common salt.

Additives

Though sodium and chlorine are the major components of common salt, it may contain other substances such as calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, calcium sulphate, magnesium sulphate, sodium sulphate, calcium bicarbonate, and magnesium bromide, which are there in seawater. Commercially produced table salt may also contain potassium iodide –this is referred to as iodised salt. Calcium silicate may also be added to keep it from cracking and becoming lumpy when kept in high humidity environments.

From the description above, it’s clear that two or more chemical elements combine to form salt. This makes it a compound and not an element.

Other Examples of Salts

Many people assume there is only one salt on Earth, but aside from sodium chloride, the other types of salt available include:

Potassium Dichromate

This is an orange-coloured salt and is made by combining three elements: potassium, chromium, and oxygen. It is mostly used as an oxidizing agent in various laboratory and industrial applications. Potassium dichromate (K2Cr2O7) is an oxidizer, meaning it is a potential fire hazard, and also toxic to humans. Any contact with your skin will cause a chemical burn so handle it with care and always wear rubber gloves when handling it. Never dispose of this substance in a waste bin, instead, wash it down the drain with lots of water. Lastly, remember that any substance that contains chromium is a potential carcinogen.

Calcium Chloride

This is a salt with the chemical formula CaCl2. It is an ionic compound consisting of the calcium cation (Ca2+) and two chloride anions (Cl-). Unlike sodium chloride that produces only two ions, calcium chloride produces three ions. This, in addition to its hygroscopic properties, makes it more effective when used as a de-icer.

Sodium Bisulfate

This salt consists of several elements, including sodium, hydrogen, sulphur and oxygen, hence the chemical formula NaHSO4. It is used in several commercial applications. Keep in mind that it is poisonous and can cause damage to your skin. For this reason, handle it with care and wear rubber gloves during handling. Be sure to call poison control in case you ingest it.

Copper Sulfate

This is a blue salt that constitutes copper, sulphur, and oxygen, hence the chemical formula CuSO4.

It goes without saying that all these salts are compounds and not elements as they are formed by combining two or more elements.

Applications of Salt

Salt is used in virtually every corner of life, starting with the food industry. It is the world’s oldest known food additive. It is used universally as a seasoning as it contributes its own salty taste that brings out foods’ natural flavours, making them tasty.

Salt has also been used as a food preservative since time immemorial as it inhibits the growth of organisms that cause food spoilage like bacteria and yeast by drawing moisture out of food. It can also function as a texture aid, binder, colour developer, and even a fermentation controller.

The chemical industry is by far the biggest consumer of salt. Here it is required in the manufacture of baking soda, caustic soda, chlorine, hydrochloric acid, and several other chemicals. Other applications include in the pulp and paper industry, textiles, dyes, petroleum additives, as well as manufacturing plastics, PVCs, soap, glaze, porcelain, etc.

Another common use of salt is as a de-icing agent. When salt is applied on snow or ice, it lowers the freezing point of water, thus quickly turning snow/ice back into water. Using salt as a de-icing agent is cheaper, more effective, and easier than attacking it with brute physical force. In fact, it has become the most widely used de-icing agent during winter to keep our roads safe and free of snow and ice.

Salt and Human Health

Common salt is essential for good health. It provides the body with essential minerals that help in the functioning of cells in the body. For starters, it helps your body to digest and absorb nutrients. It also maintains resting energy. Potassium and sodium are electrolytes in the fluid inside and outside your body cells. The balance between these two determines how well your body maintains its energy. This is also how your nerve sends signals to the brain, heart, and muscles. Last, but not least, it regulates blood pressure and pH, as well as hydration.

The human body is incapable of producing its own salt, so it relies on the various sources of salt in food to get the necessary daily intake. Although salt is essential to the body, it’s also available in large quantities in our everyday foods. The recommended daily salt intake is no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg), which is about 1 teaspoon of salt. Unfortunately, most people eat around twice the recommended maximum level. Eating too much salt has been linked to serious health concerns like high blood pressure, kidney disease, dehydration, and increased risk of heart disease. So, moderation is key!

Is Salt an Element?

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of salt is the kind in your kitchen that you add to food for taste. But table salt is just one of the many salts. In fact, from a chemistry perspective, the term salt generally describes any substance that is produced by the reaction of a positively charged acid with a negatively charged base. Some salts occur naturally and are found in seawater. Regardless of its origin, all salts share some common characteristics, including their ionic bonds, crystalline structure as a solid, electrical conductivity when melted or in solution, without forgetting their relatively high melting points. This brings us to a very important question.

Is salt an element? The short answer is no. That’s because it’s formed by joining more than one element. An example is sodium chloride, which is clearly made up of sodium atom acting as cation and chlorine atom acting as the anion. I’ll go further and describe salt as an ionic compound since it’s made up of ions of different elements.

Whether occurring naturally or made by the neutralisation process, salt is an incredibly important substance. Each salt has a positive and a negative charge and as such, has the desire to bond. It’s this property that makes salt multifunctional; you might even be surprised to learn that it has thousands of uses that go far beyond food production. Salt is a chemical compound with a number of interesting properties as you are going to see throughout this text. Stay with me as I expound on this topic and cover some of the important questions you might have about salt.

Is Salt An Element?

Salt is one of the most common ingredients used in food production. Most people consume salt every day, either adding it directly to food or consuming it indirectly in processed foods, but what is the science behind it, how is it formed, its characteristics, what are the different kinds? Read on to find out.

As I had mentioned earlier, salt in chemistry refers to a chemical compound that consists of positively and negatively charged ions. And due to their oppositely charged ions, they are attracted to each other with an electrostatic force of attraction, which is called an ionic bond. This compound has a related number of cations and anions, which makes it electrically neutral (without a net charge). In fact, the pH of salt is 7, which means it is neutral in nature; that is, it is neither acidic nor basic.

Back to today’s topic, salt is considered a compound and not an element. I’m going to explain this with an example of sodium chloride, popularly known as table salt. Sodium chloride, whose chemical formula is NaCl, is a compound because it’s made by adding together two very reactive elements, namely:

Sodium

The element sodium (Na) has 11 electrons and its electronic configuration is 2, 8, 1, which can also be represented as 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s1. Sodium has to lose one electron for it to achieve a stable configuration.

Chlorine

The element chlorine (Cl) has a total of 17 electrons and its electronic configuration is 2, 8, 7, which can also be represented as 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p5. Chlorine has to gain one electron to achieve a stable configuration.

By combining sodium and chlorine, sodium losses its extra electron to chlorine, allowing both atoms to achieve a stable electron configuration. Sodium is a very reactive metal and on its own, it is dangerous to ingest as it ignites when in contact with water. For instance, it can react with the sweat on your hands to form a very corrosive substance called sodium hydroxide. Chlorine, on the other hand, is just as reactive. It is a pale yellow, corrosive gas that should not be inhaled as it’s poisonous. When these two hazardous elements come together, they react to form the ionic compound known as sodium chloride (NaCl), known simply as common salt.

Additives

Though sodium and chlorine are the major components of common salt, it may contain other substances such as calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, calcium sulphate, magnesium sulphate, sodium sulphate, calcium bicarbonate, and magnesium bromide, which are there in seawater. Commercially produced table salt may also contain potassium iodide –this is referred to as iodised salt. Calcium silicate may also be added to keep it from cracking and becoming lumpy when kept in high humidity environments.

From the description above, it’s clear that two or more chemical elements combine to form salt. This makes it a compound and not an element.

Other Examples of Salts

Many people assume there is only one salt on Earth, but aside from sodium chloride, the other types of salt available include:

Potassium Dichromate

This is an orange-coloured salt and is made by combining three elements: potassium, chromium, and oxygen. It is mostly used as an oxidizing agent in various laboratory and industrial applications. Potassium dichromate (K2Cr2O7) is an oxidizer, meaning it is a potential fire hazard, and also toxic to humans. Any contact with your skin will cause a chemical burn so handle it with care and always wear rubber gloves when handling it. Never dispose of this substance in a waste bin, instead, wash it down the drain with lots of water. Lastly, remember that any substance that contains chromium is a potential carcinogen.

Calcium Chloride

This is a salt with the chemical formula CaCl2. It is an ionic compound consisting of the calcium cation (Ca2+) and two chloride anions (Cl-). Unlike sodium chloride that produces only two ions, calcium chloride produces three ions. This, in addition to its hygroscopic properties, makes it more effective when used as a de-icer.

Sodium Bisulfate

This salt consists of several elements, including sodium, hydrogen, sulphur and oxygen, hence the chemical formula NaHSO4. It is used in several commercial applications. Keep in mind that it is poisonous and can cause damage to your skin. For this reason, handle it with care and wear rubber gloves during handling. Be sure to call poison control in case you ingest it.

Copper Sulfate

This is a blue salt that constitutes copper, sulphur, and oxygen, hence the chemical formula CuSO4.

It goes without saying that all these salts are compounds and not elements as they are formed by combining two or more elements.

Applications of Salt

Salt is used in virtually every corner of life, starting with the food industry. It is the world’s oldest known food additive. It is used universally as a seasoning as it contributes its own salty taste that brings out foods’ natural flavours, making them tasty.

Salt has also been used as a food preservative since time immemorial as it inhibits the growth of organisms that cause food spoilage like bacteria and yeast by drawing moisture out of food. It can also function as a texture aid, binder, colour developer, and even a fermentation controller.

The chemical industry is by far the biggest consumer of salt. Here it is required in the manufacture of baking soda, caustic soda, chlorine, hydrochloric acid, and several other chemicals. Other applications include in the pulp and paper industry, textiles, dyes, petroleum additives, as well as manufacturing plastics, PVCs, soap, glaze, porcelain, etc.

Another common use of salt is as a de-icing agent. When salt is applied on snow or ice, it lowers the freezing point of water, thus quickly turning snow/ice back into water. Using salt as a de-icing agent is cheaper, more effective, and easier than attacking it with brute physical force. In fact, it has become the most widely used de-icing agent during winter to keep our roads safe and free of snow and ice.

Salt and Human Health

Common salt is essential for good health. It provides the body with essential minerals that help in the functioning of cells in the body. For starters, it helps your body to digest and absorb nutrients. It also maintains resting energy. Potassium and sodium are electrolytes in the fluid inside and outside your body cells. The balance between these two determines how well your body maintains its energy. This is also how your nerve sends signals to the brain, heart, and muscles. Last, but not least, it regulates blood pressure and pH, as well as hydration.

The human body is incapable of producing its own salt, so it relies on the various sources of salt in food to get the necessary daily intake. Although salt is essential to the body, it’s also available in large quantities in our everyday foods. The recommended daily salt intake is no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg), which is about 1 teaspoon of salt. Unfortunately, most people eat around twice the recommended maximum level. Eating too much salt has been linked to serious health concerns like high blood pressure, kidney disease, dehydration, and increased risk of heart disease. So, moderation is key!


About the author: Marta Kovachek is the author of this article. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Economics. Marta enjoys writing about the current economic situation and loves helping our readers to find their next "destination". From places to live to complex social and economic topics, we always enjoy Marta's work. Please contact us in case of any questions.