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Ethyl and isopropyl alcohol are both used as disinfectants and antiseptics and can be effective at killing germs. Ethyl alcohol may cause less skin damage.

If you look at the back of your bottle of hand sanitizer, you’ll likely see ethyl or isopropyl alcohol listed in the ingredients.

Both types of alcohol can be effective at killing germs and are used in healthcare as disinfectants and antiseptics. Studies have found that both alcohols are most effective at killing germs when they’re diluted with water to about 70 percent.

When buying a hand sanitizer, you should check the label to make sure it contains a minimum of 60 percent of either type of alcohol. You may also see ethyl alcohol listed as ethanol or simply “alcohol.”

Isopropyl alcohol can also appear as “2-propanol” on labels.

Keep reading to learn how ethyl and isopropyl alcohol differ and which one is more effective.

Ethyl and isopropyl alcohol are similar molecularly but have different chemical structures.

In chemistry, the definition of alcohol is an organic molecule that contains a hydroxyl group bonded to a saturated carbon atom. A hydroxyl group is an oxygen molecule bonded with hydrogen, written as -OH.

Ethyl alcohol

Ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, is the most well-known alcohol. It’s the type of alcohol people consume in alcoholic beverages. The chemical structure of ethanol is C2H5OH.

Ethyl alcohol is naturally produced by yeasts when they ferment sugars. As well as being consumed in beverages, it’s used medically as an antiseptic and disinfectant.

Ethyl alcohol is a common addition to motor fuels. More than 98 percent of gasoline in the United States contains ethyl alcohol.

Isopropyl alcohol

Isopropyl alcohol is also commonly called “rubbing alcohol.” Its molecular structure contains one more carbon and two more hydrogen molecules than ethyl alcohol. Its formula is written as C3H7OH.

Like ethanol, it’s commonly used as an antiseptic and disinfectant. It’s also found in lotions, cosmetics, and face washes.

Ingesting hand sanitizers can lead to death

Consuming hand sanitizers and other alcohol products not made for consumption can lead to serious health consequences or death, even if the label says “ethyl alcohol.” Hand sanitizers made outside the United States can contain another highly toxic alcohol called methanol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 15 cases of methanol poisoning associated with drinking alcohol-based hand sanitizers from May 1 to June 30, 2020. Four of the people died and three had permanent vision loss.

Even drinking small amounts of isopropyl alcohol is poisonous to children. Coma, seizures, and dangerously low blood sugar are some of the possible side effects.

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The CDC recommends choosing a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent ethyl or isopropanol alcohol and avoiding products that contain less than 60 percent. Both types of alcohol can kill bacteria, viruses, and other germs that can make you sick.

Ethyl alcohol is effective at killing a large range of viruses, but this doesn’t include hepatitis A or poliovirus.

Isopropyl alcohol isn’t as effective against a class of viruses called nonenveloped viruses but is effective at killing enveloped viruses.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is an enveloped virus. Both types of alcohol are effective at killing it, but ethyl may be more effective.

Ethyl vs. isopropyl alcohol for skin health

A 2017 study compared the effects of three types of alcohol on skin health. The researchers found that isopropyl alcohol and n-propanol caused significant damage to skin condition and function, but ethyl alcohol didn’t.

They concluded that ethanol is the best alcohol to apply to your skin, especially if you use it frequently.

Should you use ethyl or isopropyl alcohol for babies and children?

Hand sanitizers containing isopropyl, or ethyl alcohol aren’t dangerous for children or babies when used correctly. But drinking even small amounts can lead to alcohol poisoning, so the FDA recommends only giving them to children under 6 with adult supervision.

The FDA also notes that there’s no need to be concerned if your child licks their hands or eats with their hands after applying hand sanitizer.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ethyl is generally considered superior to isopropyl alcohol, but both types of alcohol are effective at killing flu and cold viruses.

A 2021 study published in The Journal of Hospital Infection found that isopropyl or ethyl alcohol in concentrations of 62 to 80 percent was very efficient at disinfecting surfaces from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Ethyl alcohol is safe for consumption in small amounts when it’s consumed in alcoholic beverages. But alcohol is linked to numerous negative health effects and over-consuming ethyl can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Drinking isopropyl alcohol is extremely dangerous and can easily lead to alcohol poisoning. It’s about twice as potent as ethyl alcohol. It’s estimated that about 250 milliliters (8.5 fluid ounces) is lethal to humans. In some cases, as little as 100 milliliters (3.4 fluid ounces) can be fatal.

A concentration of about 70 percent isopropanol or ethyl alcohol is most effective for killing germs.

In general, solutions with 60 to 90 percent alcohol tend to be more effective at killing viruses than solutions with alcohol concentrations outside this range. Weaker concentrations are noticeably less effective because less alcohol comes into contact with germs.

Stronger concentrations may be less effective because there’s not enough water. Water is needed to increase contact time with viruses and slow down evaporation.

Alcohol destroys germs by breaking down fats and proteins that they need to survive.

The exact mechanism of isopropyl alcohol’s ability to break down germs isn’t known, but it’s thought to break down proteins and the DNA that viruses, bacteria, and other germs need to survive. It’s also thought to dissolve the fat and protein that make up their protective outer membrane.

Ethanol kills germs in a similar way, by breaking down their essential fats and proteins they need to survive.

Ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are commonly used as disinfectants and antiseptics. Both alcohols are effective at killing germs when used in concentrations over 60 percent, but there’s some evidence that ethyl alcohol is less damaging to your skin.

It’s extremely dangerous to drink products containing either type of alcohol that aren’t meant for human consumption. If your child drinks hand sanitizer, you should seek immediate medical attention.