1. Yes, most ionic compounds are soluble in water

Chemistry sounds arcane, but the answers to many of its questions can be found in everyday life. When we ponder whether ionic compounds are soluble in water, we can simply think about table salt.

Table salt is sodium chloride, an ionic compound comprising sodium cations and chloride anions. From experience, we know that it dissolves quickly in water, adding flavours to our porridge, soup, and sauce.

Like table salt, most other ionic compounds are water-soluble.

What happens to the ions when the ionic compound sodium chloride dissolves

2. Because water is a powerful solvent

While the electrostatic forces of attraction holding an ionic compound together are strong, water is its Achilles’ heel.

Water molecules can attract most ions very well, luring the ions away from each other. This allows the ionic compound to dissolve, whereby water molecules and ions intermingle and mix thoroughly.

In water, the electrostatic forces of attraction between oppositely charged ions are overcome, allowing the ions to dissociate and dissolve.

crab on beach
Crab shell contains insoluble calcium carbonate (photo by Alexsandro Rosa de Mello)

3. But there are insoluble exceptions

The shells of crabs, clams, and eggs are made of calcium carbonate, an ionic compound. However, they are clearly (and thankfully) insoluble, lest the shells dissolve and the animals perish.

Likewise, our bones contain calcium phosphate, an insoluble ionic compound.

So why the contradiction?

For these insoluble ionic compounds, water molecules cannot attract their ions as well. Consequently, their ions tend to stick together, forming a big, stubborn clump that refuses to dissolve.

insoluble ionic compound found in
calcium carbonate, CaCO3 animal shells, limestone, chalk
calcium sulfate, CaSO4 plaster of Paris, cast, bandage
iron(III) oxide, Fe₂O₃ iron ore, rust
Bandage contains calcium sulfate, which hardens quickly and remains insoluble when water is applied

4. Pure Chemistry: Solubility rules

Must we memorise the insoluble exceptions?

Yes is the unfortunate answer, but there are general rules of solubility to guide us.

Which ionic compounds are soluble in water?

  • Any ionic compound containing Group I or ammonium cation is soluble
  • Any ionic compound containing nitrate anion is soluble

Which ionic compounds are insoluble in water?

With the exception of compounds containing Group I or ammonium cations:

  • Any ionic compound containing carbonate, oxide, or hydroxide anion is insoluble
  • Barium sulfate, calcium sulfate, and lead(II) sulfate are insoluble

5. Extension: Why is water a powerful solvent?

Water is a simple molecule with covalent bonding. Its oxygen atom forms a single covalent bond with each hydrogen atom, whereby they share a pair of electrons.

However, the sharing is uneven. The shared pair of electrons is closer to oxygen than hydrogen. This makes oxygen slightly negatively charged. Conversely, hydrogen – being slightly deprived of the shared electrons – is partially positively charged.

The partial charges of water molecules allow them to attract ions. This new attraction disrupts the original electrostatic forces of attraction between oppositely charged ions. Consequently, the ionic compound falls apart as the ions form a new union with water molecules.