Germs are on our mind more than ever… specifically, how to kill them. So if you’re wondering if alcohol-based sanitizers and cleaners are effective in keeping you as germ-free as possible, you’re in luck.
Here’s how alcohol actually works to kill those nasties, and how to sanitize and disinfect the right way.
Alcohol molecules are able to target germs through a chemical process called “denaturation.”
The denaturation process is simple: Alcohol molecules bond with the fat membrane that surrounds virus and bacteria cells, breaking it down. Once the membrane is gone, the cell’s insides are exposed and begin to dissolve. This kills the cell.
When it comes to alcohol-based hand sanitizers, most contain either:
- Isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol). Commonly known as rubbing alcohol and what is probably in your medicine cabinet.
- Ethanol (ethyl alcohol). Chemically the same as drinking alcohol in your tequila or whiskey.
Depending on the types of microbes you’re aiming to eliminate, ethanol is generally stronger than isopropanol. However, they’re both effective at getting rid of viruses and bacteria on skin and other surfaces. But, you have to have the right concentrations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), products should have an alcohol concentration between 60 and 90 percent to be effective disinfectants.
Also, alcohol-based sanitizers and disinfectants are for skin and surfaces ONLY. Never ever, EVER drink them. They’re not meant to kill germs inside your body… instead, they could end up killing you.
Good ol’ handwashing is still No. 1
Whenever possible, wash your hands with soap and water. It’s actually better than simply using an alcohol-based product.
Washing your hands with soap and water causes a similar germ-killing process, but soap is much more effective at killing germs than alcohol.
When used in the right concentrations (that sweet spot between 60 and 90 percent!), alcohol can kill a bunch of germs, including:
- Viruses. Alcohol can kill viruses like influenza, coronaviruses, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, herpes, rhinoviruses, and HIV.
- Bacteria. Alcohol can kill common bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus.
- Fungi. Alcohol is effective at eliminating fungal disease causing fungi like Coccidioides immitis and Blastomyces dermatitidis.
Unfortch, alcohol is ineffective against viruses like polio and hepatitis A. And a 2017 review also found that other bacteria and viruses are becoming resistant to alcohol’s disinfecting power 😬.
What about COVID-19 prevention!?
Using hand sanitizer and disinfecting surfaces are basically second nature in a COVID-19 world. But can alcohol actually kill the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)?
According to a 2020 study, it can. The study found that SARS-CoV-2 was no match for alcohol’s germ-killing power when used properly.
To reap alcohol’s disinfection benefits, make sure to choose products that have an alcohol content of at least 60 percent.
Also, keep these tips in mind when using or storing alcohol-based products:
- Make sure they’re kept away from kids and pets.
- Don’t use or store them near flames (they’re flammable AF!).
- Make sure they’re sealed at all times to prevent evaporation. This can weaken the alcohol’s concentration.
For cleaning your hands: How to use hand sanitizer
Wash, wash, washing your hands is always your best defense against germs. But if hand sanitizer’s your only option, here’s how to use it:
- Alcohol-based sanitizers work best when your hands look clean. So, remove any gunk from your hands (we’re talking dirt, debris, snack remnants, etc).
- Apply some sanitizer to one hand. Usually, a dime-sized amount will do the trick, but check the label for any product-specific directions.
- Rub those hands together. Be sure to not only get the surfaces, but those little nooks n’ crannies, too. The sanitizer needs to cover your palms, back of your hands, fingers, and the space between your fingers.
- Keep on rubbin’ until the sanitizer’s been absorbed into your skin. You’ll know it’s absorbed when your skin feels dry.
- Reapply any time you need to wash your hands and soap and water isn’t accessible.
Remember, peep that label
Try to get a hand sanitizer with an alcohol concentration of 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol for max effectiveness.
You should also check your hand sanitizer product for Methanol-contamination. This can be super dangerous and lead to serious health complications and even hospitalization. The FDA created this handy Do-Not-Use List to help you check.
For disinfecting at home: How to clean everything else
Here’s how to disinfect surfaces in your home with alcohol-based products:
- Preclean prep: Wear gloves to protect your skin and make sure the area is well-ventilated.
- Before disinfecting, use soap and water to get rid of any visible dirt and debris from the surface.
- Read the product label! Follow the instructions listed.
- Wipe down your surface, making sure it stays visibly wet for however long is recommended by the product label!
- If there are additional directions on the product label, follow them.
Keep in mind
Some viruses can live on surfaces for up to a week, so wipe down regularly. Aim for cleaning high traffic surfaces — like doorknobs, light switches, toilets, etc. — at least once a day. Disinfect multiple times a day if you or someone in your house is sick.
We can’t stress enough the effectiveness of good old-fashioned handwashing. It really is the best way to keep your hands as germ-free as possible — if you do it right.
Handwashing 101 rules are easy: Completely wet your hands with water, lather with soap, and scrub-a-dub-dub for at least 20 seconds before rinsing and drying. (Need help knowing how long 20 seconds is? This nifty hand-washing lyrics generator turns your fave song into a 20 second washing jam.)
For your household cleaning needs, there are several alternatives you can use, including:
- hydrogen peroxide
- UV light sanitizers
Check out the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a comprehensive list of disinfectants known to be effective against the new coronavirus.
Can I clean with booze?
While your favorite boozy beverages may be tasty, they won’t kill germs on your hands or household surfaces. Alcoholic drinks only contain between 5 and 30 percent alcohol, making them ineffective in disinfecting skin or surfaces.
Even if booze did contain enough alcohol to kill germs, they’re not formulated to stay on surfaces long enough to do so.
And, if you’ve purchased a hand sanitizer made by a distillery, they’ve likely upped the alcohol concentration to make it an effective sanitizer. It’s not the same as drinkable beverage (so def don’t drink that Vodka or Tequila hand sani).
Bottles of beer, whiskey, vodka, or wine are more effective at getting you through next week’s episode of “The Bachelor” than in fending off viruses or bacteria.
Even at fatal levels, the concentration of alcohol in your fave boozy bevvies that actually enters the bloodstream isn’t enough to kill germs. As always, drink responsibly and be safe.
Do not — we repeat, do NOT — drink alcohol-based cleaning products or sanitizers. There are serious risks to ingesting these products, like:
Alcohol-based products with a concentration above 60 percent are an effective way to kill germs on hands and surfaces. When used properly, these products can destroy bacteria and viruses, including the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Alcohol-based sanitizers and disinfectants are for skin and surface use ONLY. Consuming them is not only ineffective in killing germs, but doing so can also cause serious damage.