Metals Versus Nonmetals

What Are the Differences between Metals and Nonmetals?

Metal: copper (left); metalloid: arsenic (center); and non-metal: sulfur (right).
Metal: copper (left); metalloid: arsenic (center); and non-metal: sulfur (right). Matt Meadows, Getty Images

Elements may be classified as either metals or nonmetals, based on their properties. Here's a look at the differences between the metals and nonmetals.


Most elements are metals. This includes the alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, transition metals, lanthanides, and actinides. On the periodic table, metals are separated from nonmetals by a zig-zag line stepping through carbon, phosphorus, selenium, iodine and radon.

These elements and those to the right of them are nonmetals. Elements just to the left of the line may be termed metalloids or semimetals and have properties intermediate between those of the metals and nonmetals. The physical and chemical properties of the metals and nonmetals may be used to tell them apart.

Metal Physical Properties

  • lustrous (shiny)
  • good conductors of heat and electricity
  • high melting point
  • high density (heavy for their size)
  • malleable (can be hammered)
  • ductile (can be drawn into wires)
  • usually solid at room temperature (an exception is mercury)
  • opaque as a thin sheet (can't see through metals)
  • metals are sonorous or make a bell-like sound when struck

Metal Chemical Properties

  • have 1-3 electrons in the outer shell of each metal atom and lose electrons readily
  • corrode easily (e.g., damaged by oxidation such as tarnish or rust)
  • lose electrons easily
  • form oxides that are basic
  • have lower electronegativities
  • are good reducing agents


Nonmetals, with the exception of hydrogen, are located on the right side of the periodic table. Elements that are nonmetals are hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, sulfur, selenium, all of the halogens, and the noble gases.

Nonmetal Physical Properties

  • not lustrous (dull appearance)
  • poor conductors of heat and electricity
  • nonductile solids
  • brittle solids
  • may be solids, liquids or gases at room temperature
  • transparent as a thin sheet
  • nonmetals are not sonorous

Nonmetal Chemical Properties

Both metals and nonmetals take different forms (allotropes), which have different appearances and properties from each other. For example, graphite and diamond are two allotropes of the nonmetal carbon, while ferrite and austenite are two allotropes of iron. While nonmetals may have an allotrope that appears metallic, all of the allotropes of metals look like what we think of as a metal (lustrous, shiny).