If you’re wondering whether alcohol — like ethanol or isopropanol — has the ability to kill germs on your skin and on surfaces in your home, the short answer is yes, it potentially can.
Alcohol has antimicrobial properties. This means that, at the right concentration (strength), it can destroy germs such as bacteria and viruses. But, as with most things, its effectiveness depends on various factors.
Let’s get into how well alcohol works at killing various germs, including the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).
Alcohol kills germs through a simple chemical process known as denaturation.
Denaturation occurs when alcohol molecules bond with the fat membrane encasing a virus or bacteria cell. As the fat membrane is broken down, the inside of the cell — including all of its critical components — becomes exposed. It starts to dissolve, and the cell quickly dies.
This process is similar to what happens when you wash your hands with soap and water; however, soap is even more effective than alcohol.
The most widely used alcohol-based sanitizers contain either ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol). Ethanol is chemically the same as drinking alcohol. You might have heard isopropanol referred to as rubbing alcohol.
Both are fairly effective at eliminating bacteria and viruses on your skin and on different types of surfaces. In general, ethanol is more powerfulTrusted Source than isopropanol, although it depends on the type of microbe you want to kill.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommends an alcohol concentration of between 60 and 90 percent for disinfection purposes.
When looking for products like household cleaners or hand sanitizers that can kill germs, opt for ones that indicate at least 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol as an ingredient.
Keep in mind that these products aren’t meant to be consumed. They won’t help kill germs that are already inside your body. Plus, ingesting these products poses life threatening health risks.
At the required concentrations — between 60 and 90 percent — alcohol can kill a broad range of germs, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
For example, alcohol can eliminate common bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. Other bacteria, such as Enterococcus faecalis, are becoming more resistant to the effects of alcohol-based disinfectants.
Alcohol has also been shown to kill viruses such as tuberculosis, herpes, hepatitis B, HIV, influenza, rhinoviruses, and coronaviruses, among others.
A 2020 study indicates that alcohol effectively destroys SARS-CoV-2.
Finally, alcohol is also effective at destroying fungi, such as Blastomyces dermatitidis and Coccinidiodes immitis, that can cause fungal diseases.