What is chemistry?

A lab coat worn by a chemist. Although most people believe that chemistry can only be done in a lab, you actually practice some aspects of chemistry every day.
Although you might be tempted to think of chemistry in terms of dangerous substances or lab tests, the field of Chemistry encompasses everything.

According to the American Chemical Society, "Everything that you hear, see and smell, taste and touch, involves chemistry and chemicals (matter)," chartered by Congress. Hearing, tasting, touching, and seeing all involve complex chemical reactions and interactions within your body.

Even if you aren't a chemist, you still do chemistry. Chemistry is part of everyday life. It's when you cook, use cleaning detergents to clean your counter, and when you take medicine.

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According to the ACS Chemistry is the study and application of matter. It is defined as any matter that has mass and occupies space and can undergo changes when exposed to different conditions and environments.

Chemistry studies the properties of matter such as the mass and composition of chemical elements. It also examines how and why matter undergoes changes. For example, it can transform because of its combination with another substance or freeze for two weeks. Or it can change color because it is exposed to too much sun.

Chemistry basics

Chemistry touches almost everything because nearly everything can be broken down into chemical building blocks.

Chemical elements are the main building blocks of chemistry. These are substances that are made up one atom. Each chemical is unique and composed of a specific number of protons and neutrons. Chemical elements are identified with a name and a symbol (e.g. "C" for carbon). The periodic table of elements lists all elements discovered by scientists so far. It includes elements found in nature, such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, as also elements created man-made, such as Lawrencium.

Related: How elements are grouped in the periodic tables?

The bonding of chemical elements can create chemical compounds. These are substances that combine multiple elements like carbon dioxide, which is composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen molecules. Or multiple atoms from a single element like oxygen gas, which is made up of two oxygen elements connected together. These chemical compounds can bond with other elements or compounds to create a variety of other substances and materials.

Chemistry is a physical science

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines chemistry as a physical science. This is because it does not involve living organisms. This includes most of the chemistry used in research and development (e.g., making new products or materials for customers).

The distinction between a physical science and biochemistry is a little blurred in biochemistry, which studies the chemistry of living organisms, according to the Biochemical Society. Although the chemical and chemical processes that biochemists study aren't technically "living," understanding them is crucial to understanding how life works.

Chemistry is a physical science. It doesn't involve living things. Baking and cooking are two of the most common ways that people use chemistry to practice it. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

These are the five major branches of chemistry

According to LibreText's online chemistry textbook, Chemistry is traditionally broken down into five major branches. There are many other specialized fields such as nuclear chemistry, food chemistry, and environmental chemistry. However, this section will focus on the five main subdisciplines of chemistry.

Analytical Chemistry is the study of chemicals. It includes qualitative methods such as looking at color changes and quantitative methods like examining exactly what wavelengths of light a chemical absorbed in order to cause that color change.

These methods allow scientists to identify many properties of chemicals and are beneficial for society in many ways. Analytical chemistry is a method that allows food companies to make better frozen meals by monitoring how chemicals change over time. Analytical Chemistry can also be used to monitor the environment's health by measuring chemical levels in soil or water.

Biochemistry uses chemistry to understand the chemical structure of biological systems. Biochemistry has allowed researchers to map the human genome and understand the roles of different proteins in the body. This knowledge has helped to develop treatments for many diseases.

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Inorganic Chemistry studies chemical compounds found in non-living, inorganic substances such as metals and minerals. Inorganic chemistry is traditionally defined as compounds that don't contain carbon (which are covered under organic chemistry). However, this definition is not entirely accurate according to the ACS.

Inorganic chemistry can study some compounds, such as "organometallic substances", which contain metals. These are metals that have been attached to carbon, the main element in organic chemistry. These compounds are part of both.

To create many products, inorganic chemistry can be used, such as paints, fertilizers, and sunscreens.

Organic chemistry is concerned with chemical compounds that include carbon, which is an essential element for life. Organic chemists examine the structure, properties, reactions, and composition of these compounds. These compounds may also contain non-carbon elements like hydrogen, sulfur, and silicon. According to the ACS, organic chemistry can be used in many areas, including biotechnology, the petroleum industry and pharmaceuticals.

To understand the workings of chemistry, physical chemistry relies on concepts from physics. It is important to understand how atoms interact and move with one another, and why certain liquids (including water) turn into vapor at high temperatures. These phenomena are studied at the atomic and molecular level by physical chemists. They can draw conclusions about chemical reactions and determine what gives particular materials their unique characteristics.

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According to the ACS, this type of research is vital for product development and helps other branches of chemistry. Physical chemists might study the reactions of certain materials (e.g. plastic) with the chemicals they are designed to interact with.

What does a chemist do?

There are many areas that chemists can work in, such as research and development, quality control and manufacturing, environmental protection, consulting, and law. According to the ACS, they can work in universities, the government, or in private industry.

These are just a few examples of the work that chemists do.

Research and development

Chemists in academia are interested in advancing knowledge on a topic. They may not have an application in mind. However, their results can still be applied to products or applications that are relevant.

Chemists are employed in industry to improve or develop a product or process. Food chemists improve food quality, safety and flavor; pharmaceutical chemists create and analyze drug formulations; agricultural chemists design fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides that are necessary for large-scale crop production.

Sometimes research and development does not necessarily involve improving the product but the manufacturing process. Process engineers and chemical engineers develop new methods to improve the manufacturing process for their products. For example, they may find ways to increase the yield and speed of a product while keeping costs down.

Environmental protection

Environmental chemists analyze how chemicals interact with the environment. They also study chemical reactions and the chemical compositions found in soil, water, and air. Scientists can take soil, water, and air from an area of interest, and then analyze it in a laboratory. This allows them to determine whether human activities have contaminated or will contaminate the environment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental chemists are also capable of remediating soil contamination or removing it.

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Scientists who have a background or expertise in environmental chemistry may be able to work as consultants in various companies, such as chemical firms or consulting firms. They will provide guidance on how practices can be made in compliance with environmental regulations.


Chemists may use their academic backgrounds to advise or advocate on scientific issues. Chemists might work in intellectual property where they can apply their scientific backgrounds to copyright issues in science, or in environmental legal where they could represent special interests groups and file for approval by regulating agencies prior to certain activities.

Law enforcement can also be assisted by chemists. To help identify the victims and answer vital questions about the crime, forensic chemists analyze and capture physical evidence from crime scenes. A wide range of analytical methods are used by forensic chemists, including chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify and quantify chemicals.

Additional resources:

The American Chemical Society website has more information about chemistry.

This Khan Academy video provides a helpful introduction to Chemistry.

Explore the history and careers of famous chemists.

This article was edited by Ben Biggs, How It Works Editor