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Element vs. Molecule: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on January 22, 2024
Element is a pure substance consisting of one type of atom. Molecule is a group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest unit of a chemical compound.

Key Differences

An element is a fundamental substance that cannot be broken down into simpler substances through chemical reactions. A molecule, however, is a combination of two or more atoms bonded together. Elements form the basic building blocks of molecules, whereas molecules are the smallest units of chemical compounds.
Each element is characterized by a unique type of atom, with a specific number of protons in its nucleus. Molecules are formed when atoms of the same or different elements share or transfer electrons. Elements are represented in the periodic table, while molecules are represented by chemical formulas.
Elements are pure substances with distinct properties and are the simplest form of matter. Molecules can be composed of the same element (like O2) or different elements (like H2O) and have properties different from their constituent elements. The properties of an element are uniform, whereas those of molecules depend on the arrangement and types of atoms.
In nature, most elements exist combined with other elements to form molecules. Molecules, on the other hand, can exist as simple pairs of atoms or as complex structures with many atoms. The study of elements is fundamental in chemistry, while the study of molecules is essential in both chemistry and biology.
The number of protons in an element’s atom determines its atomic number and identity. In contrast, the structure of a molecule, including the types and numbers of atoms and their arrangement, defines its chemical properties and reactions. Elements are the simplest form of substances, while molecules are the building blocks of chemical compounds.

Comparison Chart

Basic Definition

A pure substance with one type of atom
A group of two or more atoms bonded together


Single type of atom
Can contain one or more types of atoms


Simplest form of matter
Complex structure, can be large or small

Chemical Properties

Defined by atomic number and structure
Determined by types and arrangement of atoms


Identified in the periodic table
Represented by chemical formulas

Element and Molecule Definitions


One of over a hundred basic substances that make up the universe.
Carbon is a versatile element found in many forms.


The basic structural unit of a substance.
Glucose molecules provide energy to cells.


A basic constituent of matter.
Oxygen is an essential element for life.


A combination of two or more atoms.
An oxygen molecule is composed of two oxygen atoms.


A substance composed of atoms with the same number of protons.
Gold is a valuable element used in jewelry.


A group of atoms bonded together.
A carbon dioxide molecule is made of one carbon and two oxygen atoms.


A chemical substance that cannot be broken down.
Helium is an inert element used in balloons.


The smallest unit of a chemical compound.
A water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.


The simplest form of a substance.
Iron is an element used in construction.


A particle representing a chemical compound.
A methane molecule is a key component of natural gas.


A fundamental, essential, or irreducible constituent of a composite entity.


The smallest particle of a substance that retains the chemical and physical properties of the substance and is composed of two or more atoms; a group of like or different atoms held together by chemical forces.


Elements The basic assumptions or principles of a subject.


A small particle; a tiny bit.


(chemistry) The smallest particle of a specific element or compound that retains the chemical properties of that element or compound; two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds.
Hydrogen chloride is a diatomic molecule, consisting of a hydrogen atom and a chlorine atom.


A tiny amount.


One of the very small invisible particles of which all ordinary matter is supposed to consist.


The smallest part of any substance which possesses the characteristic properties and qualities of that substance, and which can exist alone in a free state.


A group of atoms so united and combined by chemical affinity that they form a complete, integrated whole, being the smallest portion of any particular compound that can exist in a free state; as, a molecule of water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Cf. Atom.


(physics and chemistry) the simplest structural unit of an element or compound


(nontechnical usage) a tiny piece of anything


Can a molecule exist as a single atom?

No, molecules consist of two or more atoms.

Are all atoms of an element identical?

Yes, they have the same number of protons.

How many elements are there?

There are 118 known elements.

Do elements have a fixed boiling and melting point?

Yes, each element has specific boiling and melting points.

Can molecules be made of one element?

Yes, like O2 (oxygen molecule).

Can molecules be broken down into elements?

Yes, through chemical reactions.

Are elements organized in the periodic table?

Yes, based on their atomic number and properties.

Are molecules visible to the naked eye?

No, they are too small to be seen without a microscope.

Is every element found in nature?

No, some elements are synthetic.

Do elements conduct electricity?

Some do, like metals, but others do not.

Are all molecules safe for humans?

No, some can be toxic or harmful.

Can molecules be made in a lab?

Yes, many molecules are synthesized in laboratories.

Do molecules have a set formula?

Yes, each molecule has a specific chemical formula.

Can molecules be organic or inorganic?

Yes, they can be either.

Can elements change their form?

Yes, under different conditions like temperature and pressure.

Is hydrogen an element?

Yes, hydrogen is an element.

Are molecules part of living organisms?

Yes, they are essential components of all living things.

Are molecular structures always the same?

Yes, each molecule has a specific structure.

Do elements combine to form molecules?

Yes, through chemical bonds.

Is gold an element or a molecule?

Gold is an element.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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