Lactones are formed by intramolecular esterification of the corresponding hydroxycarboxylic acids, which takes place spontaneously when the ring that is formed is five- or six-membered. Lactones with three- or four-membered rings (α-lactones and β-lactones) are very reactive, making their isolation difficult. Special methods are normally required for the laboratory synthesis of small-ring lactones as well as those that contain rings larger than six-membered.
Lactones are usually named according to the precursor acid molecule (aceto = 2 carbon atoms, propio = 3, butyro = 4, valero = 5, capro = 6, etc.), with a -lactone suffix and a Greek letter prefix that specifies the number of carbon atoms in the heterocycle — that is, the distance between the relevant -OH and the -COOH groups along said backbone. The first carbon atom after the carbon in the -COOH group on the parent compound is labelled α, the second will be labeled β, and so forth. Therefore, the prefixes also indicate the size of the lactone ring: α-lactone = 3-membered ring, β-lactone = 4-membered, γ-lactone = 5-membered, etc.
To obtain the preferred IUPAC names, lactones are named as heterocyclic pseudoketones by adding the suffix ‘one’, ‘dione’, ‘thione’, etc. and the appropriate multiplicative prefixes to the name of the heterocyclic parent hydride.
The name lactone derives from the ring compound called lactide, which is formed from the dehydration of 2-hydroxypropanoic acid (lactic acid) CH3-CH(OH)-COOH. Lactic acid, in turn, derives its name from its original isolation from soured milk (Latin: lac, lactis). An internal dehydration within the same molecule of lactic acid would have produced alpha-propiolactone, a lactone with a 3-membered ring.