An improved, simple and sensitive analytical method for low molecular weight organic acids has been developed. A mixture of acetic, propionic, butyric, glycolic, lactic, 2-hydroxybutyric, malonic, succinic, glutaric, tartaric and citric acids was separated on a semi-rigid styrene-divinylbenzene copolymer-based H-type cation-exchange resin (ULTRON PS-80H) based on an ion exclusion chromatographic (IEC) mechanism, with detection using electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS). Formic or acetic acid was used as a mobile phase to separate the carboxylic acids within 15 min. For liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS), the ESI interface was used in both positive and negative ionization mode. ESI produced reasonable signals from positive ions, [M+NH4]+, of acetic, propionic and butyric acids and from negative ions, [MH]−, of glycolic, lactic, 2-hydroxybutyric, malonic, succinic, glutaric, tartaric and citric acids. The effects of ionization parameters, source temperature, capillary voltage and cone voltage, on sensitivity and linearity were examined. Linear plots of peak area versus concentration were obtained over the range 0.1–20 ppm for MS detection. The detection limits of the target carboxylic acids calculated at signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio of 3 ranged from 9 to 59 ppb. The reproducibility of retention times and peak areas were 0.55–1.25 and 0.85–2.45%, respectively. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.