Lots of people are trying to use hand sanitizer more often these days, and for good reason; the coronavirus is a serious pandemic and it’s important that we all take as many steps as possible to remain healthy and prevent spreading the disease around. However, this has also led lots of people to compare different hand sanitizer products.
One of the big questions is that of ethanol versus isopropyl alcohol. Which of these two, if either, is better for disinfecting your hands or various surfaces? In truth, both types of alcohol are pretty effective, though there are a few minor differences that you would do well to be aware of.
This guide will break down both ethanol and isopropyl alcohol so you know exactly what the ingredient list on the back of the hand sanitizer bottle means.
What is Ethanol?
Ethanol is arguably the most common and well-known type of alcohol. It’s also called ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol because it’s made through distilling grain and cereal products. It’s also the same alcohol used to make alcoholic beverages, like beer and whiskey.
This being said, the ethanol in hand sanitizer and other cleaning products has been denatured. This is just a scientific term meaning that the alcohol is no longer safe to drink and will instead make anyone who drinks it quite sick.
What is Isopropyl Alcohol?
Meanwhile, isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol is another common form of alcohol that most people know as rubbing alcohol. Unlike the alcohol you might drink in many of your favorite beverages, you can usually find isopropyl alcohol beneath your kitchen sink or in other types of cleaning products.
How are these two alcohol varieties different? While they are similar in terms of the structure of their base molecules, ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol differ in where exactly the alcoholic part of the molecule rests on those chemical structures.
This lends them slightly different properties and makes each slightly better at beating certain types of bacteria.
Which is Better for Disinfecting?
It’s not really a question of “better”.
In its base form, alcohol destroys bacteria cells by denaturing them. In a nutshell, the shape of the alcohol stretches a cell's walls apart, tearing the cell open so that its organelles and DNA can then be attacked or destroyed. Alcohol essentially rends a cell apart, leaving it as little more than scattered organic components that are no longer harmful to the human body.
However, both ethanol and isopropyl alcohol operate in slightly different ways. Ethyl alcohol (at least in concentrations of 70% or more according to the CDC) is particularly effective at killing:
- The tissue phase of Cryptococcus neoformans
- Blastomyces dermatitidis
- Coccidioides immitis
- Histoplasma capsulatum
- And more
Meanwhile, isopropyl alcohol in concentrations of 20% or more is particularly effective at killing certain types of fungi and cysts, like the Acanthamoeba culbertsoni bacteria. As you can see, both types of alcohol are effective at killing various species of bacteria.
However, ethanol is usually a little more drying to the skin, so it may be more uncomfortable to use a hand sanitizer made with ethyl alcohol instead of isopropyl alcohol. In contrast, isopropyl alcohol evaporates much more quickly. This both means that you need to use a little more isopropyl alcohol-based hand sanitizer per application for the best results and that it won’t dry out your skin as badly.
But you can use either type to excellent effect. If you use ethyl alcohol, just be sure to use a hand moisturizer from time to time. If you use isopropyl alcohol, slather plenty onto your hands to make sure you get all the bacteria.
How Much Do You Need?
The CDC recommends that you only ever use hand sanitizer products that have an alcohol concentration of at least 60% and no more than 90%. This is the sweet spot range that allows either variety of alcohol to be particularly effective without overly drying your skin and leading to potential health side effects.
Basically, so long as your sanitizer is between 60% and 80% alcohol, it can deactivate most lipophilic viruses and all kinds of hydrophilic viruses. But why not go all the way to 100%?
Turns out, this is actually a little less effective at defeating certain bacteria and viruses. If you use too much alcohol, it can evaporate so quickly that it doesn't have time to penetrate the outer walls of a bacterial shell or virus. If you add a little water and occasionally other ingredients, like glycerol or hydrogen peroxide, you can spread the alcohol more effectively and make sure that it reaches the majority of the bacteria on your skin.
Isopropyl alcohol is often found in higher concentrations of around 70% or more. That’s because you can use more isopropyl alcohol without drying out your skin too much. For instance, Dr. Brite’s hand sanitizer products all use isopropyl alcohol at concentrations of 70% or more. This makes our stuff “medical grade”, meaning it’s strong enough to be used in a hospital or clinical environment.
Is Either Alcohol Type Better Than Soap and Water?
No. The CDC stresses that hand sanitizers made with either type of alcohol are great solutions for portable sanitation and if you don’t have soap and water on hand at the time. However, soap and water are the champion bacteria cleaning solution.
That’s because, just like alcohol, soap can denature a bacteria cell, although much more aggressively and consistently. There are certain types of bacteria that are resistant to alcoholic denaturing, like the norovirus. While the coronavirus is certainly susceptible to alcohol-based sanitation, soap and water are much better across the board when it comes to total cleanliness.
Because of this, you should only ever use an alcohol-based sanitizer if you don’t have soap and water on hand or if it would be too difficult to get some brought to you. Hand sanitizer is a great second option and is certainly better than not washing your hands at all. But it's not meant to be a full-on replacement for hot water and soap.
Which of the Two Types Should You Pick?
In all honesty, it doesn’t really matter which of the two types of alcohol are in your hand sanitizer product. The concentration of hand sanitizer is much more important, particularly since both alcohol varieties are perfectly fine for killing the coronavirus cells that we are all worried about these days.
You should also make sure that your hand sanitizer doesn’t expire, which usually means that the alcohol content within is less concentrated than advertised. This may mean that the hand sanitizer won’t be as effective as you imagine, though using even expired hand sanitizer is still better than going without any sanitizing solution.
Ultimately, your best course of action is to use either type of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in conjunction with regular hot water and soap whenever possible. Using both tools regularly will essentially make your hands a “no man’s land” for all types of bacteria and viruses and help to keep you safe in the long run.
While both types of alcohol are fine, all of our hand sanitizer products use isopropyl alcohol. You should check out all of our hand sanitizer options since we have lots of personal and small bottles and plenty of larger bottles for offices and entire clinics. Be sure to contact us if you have any questions and want to inquire about ordering extra hand sanitizer in a big batch.