In an oxidation reaction, a substance typically gains oxygen. Oxidation reactions typically occur when a substance reacts with oxygen, which produces an oxide. An example of an oxidation reaction is combustion, in which a fuel reacts with oxygen to produce energy.

When a metal or a non-metal reacts with oxygen, this is also an oxidation reaction.


When a metal reacts with oxygen, it produces a metal oxide, and the general equation for this is:

Metal + OxygenMetal oxide

Metal oxides are formed when metals react with oxygen. They are bases that react with acids and neutralise them. Some metal oxides dissolve in water to form alkaline solutions.

An example of a metal reacting with oxygen is when magnesium reacts with oxygen to form magnesium oxide. The word equation for this reaction is:

Magnesium + OxygenMagnesium oxide

The symbol equation for this reaction is:

2Mg + O22MgO

  • We use the numbers in front of the symbols to balance the equation
  • As oxygen comes in groups of two, written as O2, we add a 2 in front of magnesium oxide (MgO) to make Mg + O2 → 2MgO
  • This also means we must place a 2 in front of magnesium (Mg), to balance the equation 2Mg + O2 ⮕ 2MgO
  • The oxide comes from the oxygen (O)

For reactive metals, heat isn’t required for them to react with oxygen. When they are exposed to the air, they will react with oxygen in the air, which will develop an outer oxide layer around the metal.

You will be able to see that the oxide layer has developed as it is often a different colour. The oxide layer acts as a protective layer, preventing the metal underneath from undergoing further oxidation.

Metals Reacting with Oxygen under a Flame

Different metals have varying levels of reactivity with oxygen. Some metals, such as copper, are less reactive and require heat to initiate an oxidation reaction. For example, heating copper over a Bunsen burner flame will form a copper oxide layer on its surface.

On the other hand, more reactive metals like magnesium will produce a more vigorous reaction when heated. When magnesium is burned in the air, it reacts with oxygen to form magnesium oxide, releasing intense heat and light.

  • The reaction is so intense that precautions must be taken to avoid burns and eye damage.


Non-metals also react with oxygen, forming non-metal oxides. For example, carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.

Visual representation of the combustion of carbon. A piece of coal on the left, a puff of oxygen in the centre, and a burning piece of coal emitting smoke on the right. Below the images, a chemical equation demonstrates carbon (C) reacting with oxygen (O2) to produce carbon dioxide (CO2).

Another example is sulphur, which reacts with oxygen to form sulphur oxide. The word equation for this is:

Sulphur + OxygenSulphur dioxide

The symbol equation for this is:

S + O2 SO2