What Is the Difference Between Sulfate, Sulfide and Sulfite?

Sulfate is any salt or ester made up of sulphuric acid. Sulfide is used to describe any of three types of chemical compounds that contain sulfur. Sulfite is sulfur dioxide, or SO2.

Sulfates, also spelled sulphates, are used in a variety of common products and processes. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a strong detergent used for removing oils and grease and is found in household cleaning products, face and body washes and shampoos. Sodium sulfate is used in the manufacturing of glass and paper. Zinc sulfate is used to preserve wood.

Sulfides, also spelled sulphides, come in three classes: organic sulfides, inorganic sulfides and phosphine sulfides. Organic sulfides are compounds in which sulfur is bonded to two organic groups. Inorganic sulfides are ionic compounds or salts which contain a negatively charged sulfide ion. Phosphine sulfides occur when the sulfur atom reacts with organic phosphines. Examples of sulfides include zinc, copper, silver and mercury.

Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, is most commonly used as a preservative in wines and foods due to its antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Consumption of sulfites in wine and food is generally considered harmless, except in people who lack the bodily enzymes to break them down during digestion. Sulfite is also a chief component of acid rain, which is formed when the sulfur dioxide interacts with water molecules.