Compound vs. Element: Key Differences and Examples to Help You Remember

Written by Megan Martin
Updated: August 20, 2023
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Have you ever wondered what the difference between a compound vs. element was? It can be a complicated topic that begins with understanding atoms. 

An atom is the smallest substance that can exist. It is a fragment of a substance that can no longer be broken down on a chemical level. Atoms have a nucleus made of protons and neutrons. Small, negatively-charged particles known as electrons orbit the nucleus. Protons have a positive charge.

Now that you have a foundation of chemical knowledge, understanding compounds versus elements will come easier. Ready to learn more? Keep reading below!

What Is an Element?

Elements are groups of atoms that come together to build a substance. You may recognize the term from the periodic table. In the periodic table, elements are organized, and some may even be familiar, such as oxygen, hydrogen, and helium. 

However, an element is a pure chemical substance containing only one type of atom. If you’re dealing with an element like oxygen, then it will only be made up of oxygen atoms. 

Periodic table of elements. Selective focus.

In compounds vs. elements, elements have only one atom type and can’t be broken down as a compound can.


Example of Elements

The entire periodic table is full of examples of elements. Many of these, such as oxygen, hydrogen, and helium, have been mentioned above. Other examples of elements, however, include silver, argon, and sodium. 

What Is a Compound?

Compounds are substances that are made up of different elements. Whereas a single element will only have atoms that are associated with that element, compounds can include atoms from many different elements. As a result, these combine together to create new substances. 

Unlike elements, which can only be broken down into those individual atoms, compounds can be broken down into individual elements. Additionally, more complex compounds can even be broken down into other compounds before further breaking down into elements and atoms. 

Salt is a common compound in our daily lives.


Example of Compounds

One of the most well-known compounds in the world is water. Water has the scientific notation of H2O. This means that it is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Other examples include table salt (NaCl) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2).

In conclusion, we interact with compounds in our everyday lives. In addition to table salt and water, there’s sugar (C12H22O11) and vinegar (C12H22O11). Lastly, your kitchen cabinets, medicine cabinets, and pantry probably have even more compounds.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © isak55/

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About the Author

Megan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is birds, felines, and sharks. She has been researching and writing about animals for four years, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in biology and professional and technical writing from Wingate University, which she earned in 2022. A resident of North Carolina, Megan is an avid birdwatcher that enjoys spending time with her cats and exploring local zoological parks with her husband.

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