Unlike other medical products, an alcohol rub tends to have very little variation between brands, but there are many differences that most people do not recognize. One of the biggest differences between alcohol rub products is the type of alcohol being used, because there are ethyl and isopropyl rubs, and each is good for different purposes. Along with the type of alcohol being used, the percentage of alcohol used will make a rub better or worse as a sanitizer or disinfectant. A rub usually is used as a liquid contained in a bottle, but there are several types of carriers that may optimize the alcohol for mobile use.
Some people may not realize it, but "alcohol rub" is a generic term that can refer to two different types of alcohol: ethyl and isopropyl. Both alcohols are made with different ingredients, which makes each more suitable for certain tasks. Ethyl rubbing alcohol is made primarily from ethanol and works best on bacteria but tends to lose its effect on spores and fungi. Isopropyl rubbing alcohol primarily is made from propylene, which dries much faster and tends to work better against infections, but it also is more poisonous if ingested.
An alcohol rub comes in different percentages of purity that determine its effect and usefulness. The common percentages are 70 percent and 99 percent alcohol, with the rest of the container being filled with water or other additives that dilute the alcohol. While both can be used to disinfect, 70 percent is often better for home use and is softer than the rub with 99 percent alcohol. In the medical field, and when anything needs to be sterilized, the 99 percent variant usually is better. There also are other variants, such as 75 percent, 90 percent and 95 percent.
Aside from the common form for an alcohol rub — in a bottle as a liquid — there are other carriers that can make the rubbing alcohol suited for different purposes. The bottled liquid is best if alcohol is needed in bulk, but it can be difficult to use without cotton balls, paper towels or something else to absorb it unless the alcohol will be rubbed over an instrument or large area. Alcohol pads are easy to carry and use for hands or facial cleaning, but they tend to have less alcohol than the bottle. Even smaller is the alcohol swab, which is best for very small areas but is not as suitable for larger needs.