Xanthates are formed by combining alcohol with carbon disulfide in the presence of an alkali metal - namely lithium (Li), sodium (Na), potassium (K), rubidium (Rb), cesium (Cs), or francium (Fr).

The term is derived from the Greek word xanthos, for yellow. The most important group of xanthates are the sodium salts produced from cellulose.

These materials are processed to form rayon and cellophane. Some xanthates are used as flotation agents for the concentration of certain metal ores. Human and environmental health risks depend on the chemical xanthate in question.