HomeScienceBiologyWhat are Carboxylic Acids | Definition and Examples

What are Carboxylic Acids | Definition and Examples


Carboxylic acids are a class of organic compounds characterized by the presence of at least one carboxyl group (-COOH) in their molecular structure. The carboxyl group consists of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom (carbonyl group, C=O) and single-bonded to a hydroxyl group (OH). In other words, carboxylic acids form hydrogen bond. This functional group is what gives carboxylic acids their acidic properties, as it can release a proton (H⁺) in aqueous solutions, making the solution acidic.

The general formula for a carboxylic acid is R-COOH, where R represents a hydrocarbon chain that can be either aliphatic (linear or branched) or aromatic. The nature of the R group influences the physical and chemical properties of the carboxylic acid, such as its acidity, boiling point, and solubility in water.

Carboxylic acids are widely found in nature and play essential roles in biological systems. For example, acetic acid (vinegar) is a simple carboxylic acid with the formula CH₃COOH, where the R group is a methyl group (CH₃-). Fatty acids, which are key components of lipids, are another important class of carboxylic acids with long hydrocarbon chains.

In addition to their biological importance, carboxylic acids are used in the synthesis of various industrial chemicals, polymers, pharmaceuticals, and perfumes. They can react with alcohols to form esters, a reaction known as esterification, which is crucial in both biological systems and industrial applications.

The acidity of carboxylic acids is due to the resonance stabilization of their conjugate base (the carboxylate ion, R-COO⁻), which makes it easier for the carboxyl group to lose a proton. This acidity is stronger than that of alcohols and phenols, but generally weaker than that of mineral acids like hydrochloric acid (HCl).


Carboxylic acids are organic compounds containing a carboxyl group (-COOH), which imparts acidic properties by releasing a hydrogen ion (H+) in solution.

Rules for Naming Carboxylic Acids

Naming carboxylic acids follows systematic rules set by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to ensure consistency and clarity in chemical nomenclature. Here are the basic rules for naming carboxylic acids:

Identify the Longest Carbon Chain Containing the Carboxyl Group:

The longest carbon chain that includes the carboxyl group forms the base name of the acid. This chain is numbered starting from the carbon of the carboxyl group, which is always given the number 1.

Example: For acetic acid, the longest chain containing the carboxyl group has two carbons, leading to the base name “ethane.” Applying the carboxylic acid naming rule changes this to “ethanoic acid.”

Use the Suffix “-oic acid”:

Replace the “-e” ending of the corresponding alkane name with “-oic acid” to indicate the presence of a carboxyl group. For example, the simplest carboxylic acid, with a single carbon atom, is named methanoic acid (commonly known as formic acid).

Example: Methane (a one-carbon alkane) becomes “methanoic acid” when it has a carboxyl group, known commonly as formic acid.

Naming Substituents:

If there are other substituents (e.g., halogens, alkyl groups) attached to the carbon chain, identify them and their positions on the chain. Use locants (numbers) to indicate the position of each substituent on the carbon chain, with the carboxyl carbon being carbon 1. Prefixes (like methyl-, ethyl-, chloro-, bromo-, etc.) are used to name these substituents, and they are listed in alphabetical order in the final name.


4-Chlorobutanoic Acid: Here, a four-carbon chain (butane) with a chlorine substituent on the fourth carbon becomes “4-chlorobutanoic acid.”

2-Methylpropanoic Acid: A three-carbon chain with a methyl group on the second carbon is named “2-methylpropanoic acid.”

Multiple Carboxyl Groups:

When a molecule contains more than one carboxyl group, use the suffixes “-dioic acid,” “-trioic acid,” etc., to indicate the number of carboxyl groups. The carbon chain is numbered to give the carboxyl groups the lowest possible numbers. For example, a two-carbon chain with two carboxyl groups is named ethanedioic acid (commonly known as oxalic acid).


  • Ethanedioic Acid: A two-carbon chain with carboxyl groups at both ends is named “ethanedioic acid,” commonly known as oxalic acid.
  • Butanedioic Acid: A four-carbon chain with carboxyl groups at each end is named “butanedioic acid,” known as succinic acid.

Cyclic Carboxylic Acids:

When the carboxyl group is attached to a ring, the compound is named as a carboxylic acid, but the ring structure is considered part of the base name. The ring is numbered starting from the carboxyl carbon as carbon 1, and subsequent carbons in the ring are numbered sequentially.


Cyclohexanecarboxylic Acid: A carboxyl group attached to a cyclohexane ring, with the ring providing the base name and the carboxyl group indicating it is an acid.

Common Names:

Some carboxylic acids are more commonly known by their traditional names. For example, acetic acid (ethanoic acid), propionic acid (propanoic acid), and benzoic acid (for a simple benzene ring with a carboxyl group).


  • Acetic Acid (Ethanoic Acid): The common name for ethanoic acid, highlighting the historical naming conventions that are still in use.
  • Benzoic Acid: The common name for benzenecarboxylic acid, showing how some common names are more widely used than their systematic counterparts.

Functional Derivatives:

Carboxylic acids can form derivatives such as esters, amides, anhydrides, and acid chlorides. These derivatives are named by changing the “-oic acid” suffix to reflect the type of derivative (e.g., “-oate” for esters, “-amide” for amides).


Methyl Methanoate: Demonstrates naming for esters; derived from methanoic acid and methanol, the name indicates the alcohol part (methyl) and the acid part (methanoate).

Ethanoic Anhydride: Shows naming for anhydrides; derived from ethanoic acid, indicating the acid part twice because anhydrides are formed from two acid molecules.

Examples of Carboxylic Acids

Below is a table listing examples of carboxylic acids, including their common names (where applicable), systematic (IUPAC) names, and structural formulas:

Common Name IUPAC Name Structural Formula
Formic Acid Methanoic Acid HCOOH
Acetic Acid Ethanoic Acid CH3COOH
Propionic Acid Propanoic Acid C2H5COOH
Butyric Acid Butanoic Acid C3H7COOH
Valeric Acid Pentanoic Acid C4H9COOH
Caproic Acid Hexanoic Acid C5H11COOH
Benzoic Acid Benzenecarboxylic Acid C6H5COOH
Oxalic Acid Ethanedioic Acid (COOH)2
Malonic Acid Propanedioic Acid CH2(COOH)2
Succinic Acid Butanedioic Acid C2H4(COOH)2
Glutaric Acid Pentanedioic Acid C3H6(COOH)2
Adipic Acid Hexanedioic Acid C4H8(COOH)2
Maleic Acid (Z)-Butenedioic Acid C4H4(COOH)2 (cis form)
Fumaric Acid (E)-Butenedioic Acid C4H4(COOH)2 (trans form)
Citric Acid 2-Hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic Acid C6H8O7

This table showcases a variety of carboxylic acids, ranging from simple, straight-chain acids to more complex structures including aromatic acids and dicarboxylic acids. Each has unique properties and uses, reflecting the diversity and importance of carboxylic acids in chemistry, biology, and industry.

Functions of Carboxylic Acids

Carboxylic acids with the formula H3C-COOH, where H3C- represents a methyl group, specifically refer to acetic acid (ethanoic acid). Acetic acid is a simple carboxylic acid that is widely used and has numerous functions and applications across various fields. Here are some of its key functions and uses:

Vinegar Production:

Acetic acid is the main component of vinegar, which is used extensively in cooking, baking, and salad dressings. Vinegar typically contains 4-8% acetic acid by volume.

Chemical Synthesis:

Acetic acid is a key starting material and solvent in the synthesis of various chemical compounds, including vinyl acetate (used in the production of polyvinyl acetate for adhesives and paints), acetic anhydride (used in the production of cellulose acetate and aspirin), and other acetic esters.

Food Industry:

Beyond vinegar, acetic acid is used as a preservative due to its antibacterial and antifungal properties, helping to extend the shelf life of many food products.

Medicinal Uses:

Dilute acetic acid solutions are used in medical treatments, such as ear drops to combat infections. It’s also used in cervical cancer screening tests (acetic acid solution is applied to the cervix to help identify abnormal cells).

Acidic Properties:

Carboxylic acids exhibit acidity due to the presence of the carboxyl group, readily releasing protons (H+) in aqueous solutions.

Biological Functions:

These acids are integral to living organisms, with fatty acids, which also have many functions, a type of carboxylic acid, playing essential roles in energy storage and cellular structure.


Carboxylic acids participate in metabolic pathways such as the citric acid cycle, contributing to the production of ATP and other crucial molecules in cellular respiration.

Chemical Reactions:

Involved in various reactions like esterification, amidation, and decarboxylation, carboxylic acids are pivotal in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, polymers, and other organic compounds.

Preservatives and Flavor Agents:

Certain carboxylic acids, like benzoic acid, function as food preservatives due to their antimicrobial properties, while others contribute to the taste and aroma of foods and beverages.

Industrial Applications:

Used in the production of industrial products, carboxylic acids, such as acetic acid, serve as solvents and play roles in the production of plastics, textiles, and pharmaceuticals.

Organic Synthesis:

Carboxylic acids are crucial starting materials for synthesizing a wide range of organic compounds, including drugs, dyes, and polymers.

Detergents and Surfactants:

Some carboxylic acids are employed in the production of detergents and surfactants, improving cleaning properties by reducing surface tension.

pH Regulation:

In biological systems, carboxylic acids act as buffers, regulating pH by accepting or donating protons to maintain a stable environment.

Carboxylic Acids FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about carboxylic acids:

What is a carboxylic acid?

A carboxylic acid is a functional group characterized by a carbonyl group (C=O) and a hydroxyl group (OH) attached to a carbon atom. The general formula is R-COOH, where R represents an organic group.

What are common examples of carboxylic acids?

Examples include acetic acid (found in vinegar), formic acid, citric acid (found in citrus fruits), and benzoic acid.

How are carboxylic acids named?

The IUPAC nomenclature for carboxylic acids involves replacing the “-e” ending of the corresponding alkane with “-oic acid.” For example, methane becomes methanoic acid.

What are the physical properties of carboxylic acids?

Carboxylic acids are generally polar and have higher boiling points than similar-sized hydrocarbons. They often have distinctive odors and are soluble in water due to the presence of the hydroxyl group.

What is the acidity of carboxylic acids?

Carboxylic acids are weak acids, meaning they partially ionize in water. The hydrogen ion (H+) is released from the hydroxyl group, leading to the formation of carboxylate ions (RCOO-).

How do carboxylic acids react with metals?

Carboxylic acids do not react with metals as vigorously as mineral acids. However, they can react with reactive metals to produce hydrogen gas and a metal carboxylate.

What is the esterification reaction involving carboxylic acids?

Esterification is a reaction between a carboxylic acid and an alcohol, resulting in the formation of an ester and water. This reaction is commonly used in the synthesis of flavorings and fragrances.

How are carboxylic acids reduced?

Carboxylic acids can be reduced to primary alcohols through various methods, such as using reducing agents like lithium aluminum hydride (LiAlH4) or sodium borohydride (NaBH4).

What is the role of carboxylic acids in biological systems?

Carboxylic acids play crucial roles in biological processes. They are components of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and are involved in various metabolic pathways.

Are there any health or safety concerns related to carboxylic acids?

Some carboxylic acids can be corrosive and may cause irritation. It’s important to handle them with care and use appropriate safety precautions. Additionally, certain carboxylic acids are present in foods and are generally safe in moderate amounts.

Summer Leonard
Summer Leonard
Summer Leonard writes about students and school life. She shares practical advice and understanding based on her own experiences. Her writing aims to create a supportive community among students, helping them navigate the challenges of academics. Through simple and thoughtful words, she inspires and guides those on the educational journey.

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