Isopropyl or Ethanol: Which Is the Better Alcohol?

The demand for rubbing alcohol and alcohol-based sanitizers skyrocketed seemingly overnight during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have even a small bottle of it on hand at all times. 

The importance of keeping one’s hands clean and sanitized at all times was emphasized heavily by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Both have stated that the novel coronavirus spreads through direct contact and could also be transmitted from touching an infected surface and unwittingly allowing the virus to travel from the hands to the nose, mouth, or eyes. Having clean hands, therefore, became everyone’s number one priority, especially given how many times we all touch our faces unconsciously in a day or even an hour. 

However, not everyone has access to facilities where they can wash their hands with soap and water at all times. This is where alcohol-based hand rubs come in. A lot of people still seem confused about the difference between the primary ingredients of these products, though. Here’s a primer on the differences between isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol. 

Isopropyl Alcohol

Isopropyl alcohol is known under many other names, including 2-propanol, isopropanol, or IPA. It is a widely-used disinfectant and sanitizing agent, especially in the medical and healthcare industry, where it is the alcohol of choice at hospitals, pharmaceutical laboratories, and factories that produce medical devices. This chemical compound is available in a wide variety of concentrations, purity grades, and solutions for different purposes. 

There is a misconception that drinking rubbing alcohol has the same effect as consuming alcoholic beverages like whiskey or gin. Despite having the word alcohol in its name, many people are unaware of the dangers of drinking rubbing alcohol. Isopropyl isn’t metabolized by the body as well as ethyl-based alcoholic drinks and can even prove fatal when taken in large amounts. Understanding the nature of rubbing alcohol can help people avoid the trap of trying to consume these types of products in the same manner as alcoholic beverages.

Ethanol Alcohol

Ethanol alcohol is perhaps best known as an active ingredient in alcohol drinks. Also known as grain alcohol, it has an intoxicating effect when consumed, although it also has uses as an antiseptic. It is used in many antibacterial products like hand sanitizers and functions similarly to isopropyl alcohol when it comes to killing germs by dissolving the outer membrane of fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

Similar to isopropyl alcohol abuse, there have been cases where people try to consume ethanol-based hand sanitizers as a substitute for alcoholic beverages. While ethanol is present in many alcoholic beverages, the ethanol concentration in hand sanitizers is denatured and will make a person sick rather than drunk. 

Assessing the Differences between Isopropyl vs. Ethanol

As disinfectants, both isopropyl and ethanol are effective against all types of viruses at the right concentrations. In general, isopropyl is more effective than ethanol at lower concentrations, with the former being effective against viruses at around 40 to 60 percent concentration compared to the same effectivity of the latter at 70 to 90 percent. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the health risk involved should someone accidentally consume either isopropyl- or ethanol-based alcohol. Swallowing as little as 8 ounces of isopropyl alcohol can already fatal since 20 percent of it is metabolized by the body as acetone. Acetone is considered toxic and acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, causing severe damage to nerves, as well as the kidney and liver, as a result. Ethanol-based alcohol, on the other hand, can be safely consumed to a degree but can still cause illness when taken in large amounts.

There’s also a big difference between the evaporation rates of isopropyl and ethanol. Isopropyl evaporates at a much faster rate, making it more ideal when trying to clean sensitive components like electronics. Ethanol can also feel more dehydrating on the skin due to its slower evaporation.


The choice between buying ethanol- or isopropyl-based alcohol will mainly depend on an individual’s needs and the state of their household. While both are just as effective at cleaning and disinfecting, it’s important to consider things such as the type of cleaning that needs to be done and whether or not there are children or minors present. In any case, both types of alcohol are certainly good at doing their jobs and are instrumental in protecting individuals and those around them from disease-causing germs like COVID-19.

Help Keep Big Easy Magazine Alive

Hey guys!

Covid-19 is challenging the way we conduct business. As small businesses suffer economic losses, they aren’t able to spend money advertising.

Please donate today to help us sustain local independent journalism and allow us to continue to offer subscription-free coverage of progressive issues.

Thank you,
Scott Ploof
Big Easy Magazine

Share this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *