The hydrogen (H) atom in the carboxyl group (−COOH) in carboxylic acids such as acetic acid can be given off as an H+ ion (proton), giving them their acidic character. Acetic acid is a weak, effectively monoprotic acid in aqueous solution, with a pKa value of 4.8. Its conjugate base is acetate (CH3COO−). A 1.0 M solution (about the concentration of domestic vinegar) has a pH of 2.4, indicating that merely 0.4% of the acetic acid molecules are dissociated.
The crystal structure of acetic acid shows that the molecules pair up into dimers connected by hydrogen bonds. The dimers can also be detected in the vapour at 120 °C. They also occur in the liquid phase in dilute solutions in non-hydrogen-bonding solvents, and to some extent in pure acetic acid, but are disrupted by hydrogen-bonding solvents. The dissociation enthalpy of the dimer is estimated at 65.0–66.0 kJ/mol, and the dissociation entropy at 154–157 J mol–1 K–1. This dimerisation behaviour is shared by other lower carboxylic acids.
Liquid acetic acid is a hydrophilic (polar) protic solvent, similar to ethanol and water. With a moderate dielectric constant of 6.2, it can dissolve not only polar compounds such as inorganic salts and sugars, but also non-polar compounds such as oils and elements such as sulfur and iodine. It readily mixes with many other polar and non-polar solvents such as water, chloroform, and hexane. This dissolving property and miscibility of acetic acid makes it a widely used industrial chemical.
Acetic acid is corrosive to many metals including iron, magnesium, and zinc, forming hydrogen gas and metal salts called acetates. Aluminum, when exposed to oxygen, forms a thin layer of aluminum oxide on its surface which is relatively resistant, so that aluminum tanks can be used to transport acetic acid. Metal acetates can also be prepared from acetic acid and an appropriate base, as in the popular "baking soda + vinegar" reaction. With the notable exception of chromium(II) acetate, almost all acetates are soluble in water.
Mg(s) + 2CH3COOH(aq) → (CH3COO)2Mg(aq) + H2(g)
NaHCO3(s) + CH3COOH(aq) → CH3COONa(aq) + CO2(g) + H2O(l)
Acetic acid undergoes the typical chemical reactions of a carboxylic acid, such producing water and a metal ethanoate when reacting with alkalis, producing a metal ethanoate when reacted with a metal, and producing a metal ethanoate, water and carbon dioxide when reacting with carbonates and hydrogencarbonates. Most notable of all its reactions is the formation of ethanol by reduction, and formation of derivatives such as acetyl chloride via nucleophilic acyl substitution. Other substitution derivatives include acetic anhydride; this anhydride is produced by loss of water from two molecules of acetic acid. Esters of acetic acid can likewise be formed via Fischer esterification, and amides can also be formed. When heated above 440°C, acetic acid decomposes to produce carbon dioxide and methane, or to produce ketene and water.
Acetic acid can be detected by its characteristic smell. A colour reaction for salts of acetic acid is iron(III) chloride solution, which results in a deeply red colour that disappears after acidification. Acetates when heated with arsenic trioxide form cacodyl oxide, which can be detected by its malodorous vapours.