Does Alcohol Kill Germs? DRs Weigh In On Using Rubbing Alcohol, Vodka As A Disinfectant

by | Mar 13, 2020 | Health

If you look at any bottle of hand sanitiser, you’ll probably notice alcohol as a main ingredient (well, hopefully at least). Not to mention the fact that rubbing alcohol is a staple in many first-aid kits. So…does alcohol kill germs and could you use it in place of, say, hand sanitiser or cleaning fluid? And what about those people who always joke that a stiff drink helps them keep the germs away?

It’s a confusing topic, but let’s get one thing straight before proceeding further: Rubbing alcohol and what you order at the bar are two very different things. The stuff that comes in a shot glass is ethyl alcohol, while the stuff found in the plastic bottle found in first aid kits is isopropyl alcohol, which is much more potent and not really meant to be swallowed, per Poison Control guidelines.

Here’s what experts say about whether either type of alcohol is really an effective disinfectant when it comes to killing a virus or bacteria.

Should you clean your house with alcohol?

While rubbing alcohol naturally kills bacteria and viruses, Dr Andrew Alexis, chair of Mount Sinai’s department of dermatology, says he does not recommend using it to disinfect your home. “While commonly used to disinfect smaller objects such as stethoscopes, rubber stoppers of medication vials, and thermometers, alcohol solutions are extremely evaporative and therefore not an effective means of decontaminating household surfaces,” he explains.

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He says items really need to be submerged in isopropyl alcohol for 10 minutes in order for it to really do its thing, but since the alcohol concentration is so high, it evaporates just too darn fast to really be effective for the sanitisation of surfaces.

And as for the idea that you can clean your house with a bottle of vodka, that’s not going to work out very well for you, either. Dr Alexis explains that an alcohol solution’s ability to kill germs decreases rapidly as the alcohol concentration decreases. In order to really be effective, a solution needs to be 60 to 90 percent alcohol, which is much higher than what you pick up from the liquor store. (More on that later.) Additionally, there are no disinfectants with only alcohol as a main ingredient on the FDA’s list of disinfectants it recommends for use with medical and dental equipment.

Will drinking alcohol kill germs?

The short answer? Absolutely not. In fact, Dr Alexis says there is “no evidence that drinking alcohol will help kill viruses and bacteria.” Again, disinfectants have a much higher alcohol concentration and are made with a different type of alcohol than humans consume.

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If you’re worried about getting sick, or if you’re feeling sick, the best thing you can do is to follow the CDC’s guidelines, Dr Alexis says. That includes washing your hands, avoiding those who are sick, and isolating yourself if you’re feeling sick.

Can you use alcohol as a hand sanitiser?

Let’s clear a few things up here: Hand sanitiser should be alcohol-based and at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective, per the CDC, a fact that led Tito’s (an alcohol brand in the US) to politely ask its fans last week to stop using its 40 percent alcohol vodka as the basis for their DIY hand sanitiser.

Theoretically, you could use rubbing alcohol to DIY your own hand sanitiser, but the CDC says that washing your hands with good-old soap and water is really a much better idea. “Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of germs in most situations,” according to their site. “Clean hands can stop germs from spreading from one person to another and throughout an entire community — from your home and workplace to childcare facilities and hospitals.”

So, get yourself another bar of soap and save that bottle of vodka for your next round of Moscow Mules.

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