Does alcohol kill viruses? How it works and how to use it


Alcohol kills some viruses, but not all. Effectiveness depends on the concentration and type of alcohol, as well as the species of virus.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend washing hands with soap and water, this method of cleaning is not always available. When this is not the case, the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help prevent the transmission of viral infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

In addition to using sanitizers to clean their hands, people can use rubbing alcohol to disinfect frequently touched items in the home, such as phones and computer keyboards.

This article explains how well alcohol can kill viruses, how it works, and what concentrations to look for. It also provides instructions on how to use hand sanitizers and rubbing alcohol.

According to a study 2020, isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol can kill a range of viruses. Isopropyl alcohol is the main ingredient in rubbing alcohol, while ethyl alcohol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages.

The effectiveness of these alcohols depends on their concentration and the type of virus. Enveloped viruses have a lipid membrane while non-enveloped viruses are those without a lipid membrane. Generally, non-enveloped viruses are more resistant to disinfectants.

Isopropyl alcohol works against enveloped viruses but not against non-enveloped viruses. Ethyl alcohol acts against enveloped viruses and some non-enveloped viruses. Ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol have powerful antiviral action against:

These alcohols have no antiviral action against non-enveloped viruses, such as poliomyelitis and hepatitis A.

Few studies examined how alcohol kills viruses. However, scientists believe that alcohol disrupts the cell membrane of the virus by altering its protein structure. A item 2021 refers to this process as “denaturation and coagulation”. Without a functioning membrane, the virus cannot reproduce and cause infection.

Adding water to alcohol makes it more effective at denaturing proteins. This is because alcohol evaporates very quickly. Water slows this down, exposing viruses to alcohol longer.

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outermost membrane of SARS-CoV-2 contains lipids, alcohol is effective against it.

A study 2020 found that certain concentrations of ethyl or isopropyl alcohol rendered the virus inactive after 30 seconds. the CDC advises using alcohol-based hand sanitizers to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 when soap and water are not available.

A research paper 2021 indicates that the recommended alcohol concentration in disinfectants is 80% ethyl alcohol or 75% isopropyl alcohol. However, disinfectants containing at least 60% alcohol are also effective, according to the CDC.

the study 2020 who assessed the impact of hand sanitizer formulations on SARS-CoV-2 found that concentrations of 30% or greater resulted in complete viral inactivation.

People can use alcohol-based sanitizers or rubbing alcohol around the house to clean small objects and frequently touched surfaces, like phones or doorknobs. To clean these items, start by:

  1. Make sure the room is well ventilated.
  2. Apply rubbing alcohol to a cotton ball.
  3. Replace the cap to prevent inhalation.
  4. Wipe the pad on the surface.
  5. Dispose of cotton safely.

The National Capital Poison Control Center warns that rubbing alcohol has certain dangers. Even small amounts are poisonous if a person inhales the vapors or drinks any amount. To reduce the risk, a person should:

  • keep rubbing alcohol safely out of the reach of children
  • use it only in well-ventilated rooms
  • keep away from open flames
  • never swallow rubbing alcohol

There are two ways to use alcohol on the skin to kill viruses. The first is to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel. People can use it by applying gel to the palms and rubbing all over the hands, including between the fingers. Then wait for it to dry.

Doctors no longer recommend people use rubbing alcohol to clean wounds, as it can further damage tissue. Instead, a person can rinse the wound under running tap water for 5 to 10 minutes before soaking a gauze pad in saline solution or tap water and gently dabbing or wiping the wound. skin with. Alternatively, they can use an alcohol-free wipe.

Although alcohol gels and sterilants are effective in killing a number of potentially harmful microbes, they have certain drawbacks.

Inferior to washing with soap and water

the CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water whenever possible. Unlike hand sanitizers, soap and water can kill all kinds of germs from hands. This includes all types of bacteria, viruses and other substances, such as pesticides.

In some situations, washing hands with soap and water is necessary for good hygiene. These include:

  • before, during and after food preparation
  • after going to the toilet
  • after touching the garbage
  • when hands are visibly oily or dirty
  • before and after caring for a sick person
  • before and after visiting someone with a weakened immune system

If soap and water are not available, use a disinfectant containing at least 60% alcohol.

Inferior to other surface cleaners

Alcohol is less efficient than certain other disinfectants for cleaning surfaces or equipment. For example, in hospitals, staff usually opt for hydrogen peroxide or other disinfectants instead of alcohol to clean the environment, such as floors.

These substances can kill a wider variety of germs than alcohol and do not evaporate as quickly, which means they are in contact with germs longer. However, they have their own advantages and disadvantages and have not entirely replaced alcohol.

The rapid evaporation of alcohol can be an asset when disinfecting non-invasive equipment, such as thermometers. Also, unlike hydrogen peroxide, alcohol does not bleach clothing and fabrics.

Antibiotic resistance

Alcohol-based sanitizers have antibacterial properties in addition to their antiviral properties. However, bacteria can evolve over time so that substances no longer harm them. This is called antibiotic resistance.

Some researchers worry that hand sanitizers contribute to antibiotic resistance. However, a research paper 2021 reports that alcohol did not show the potential to cause bacterial resistance.

Some experts advise cleaning hands with sanitizer for 20-30 seconds and letting them dry to reduce the risk of remaining bacteria developing resistance.

Isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol can kill viruses that have high lipid cell membranes. SARS-CoV-2 falls into this category, along with HIV, hepatitis B virus, and herpes viruses. Alcohol works by altering the structure of the viral membrane, rendering it unable to function.

Washing hands with soap and water is preferable to using alcohol-based hand sanitizers. However, when this option is not available, people can use hand gels containing 60–90% alcohol. Optimal concentrations are 80% ethanol or 75% isopropyl alcohol.

People can also use rubbing alcohol to clean small items around the house, but it’s important to follow precautions when handling them.

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