How Do I Choose the Best Alcohol Rub?

Alex Newth

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.

A bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
A bottle of isopropyl alcohol.

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.

Ethyl rubbing alcohol works best on bacteria.
Ethyl rubbing alcohol works best on bacteria.

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.

Cotton balls may be used to apply alcohol rub to the body.
Cotton balls may be used to apply alcohol rub to the body.

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Discussion Comments

SpecialBug

I like using rubbing alcohol on chrome appliances and bathroom fixtures. It cleans nicely and is great on bathroom mirrors too. Just be very careful about using alcohol near heat sources, since it is flammable.

Jewellian

When cleaning a cut or abrasion, soap and water is just as effective as rubbing alcohol, and it stings less. (Your children will thank you). It is just more convenient, in a hospital or doctor's office to administer alcohol with a cotton ball or small wipe, which is more portable.

The article mentions the use of alcohol for cleaning face and hands. Be careful of these uses. Though you will have a squeaky clean face, alcohol can also dry out your skin. So, if you are prone to dry skin, it may be wise to find an alternative face cleanser. Or if you are hooked on that squeaky-clean feel, find a good moisturizer to counteract the drying effect of the alcohol.

Ahmerus

I didn't know there were differences in types of alcohol. I thought all rubbing alcohol was isopropyl and wasn't aware that ethanol was a product. It just goes to prove, you can learn something new everyday!

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