What's the Difference Between Ethyl Alcohol, Isopropyl Alcohol, and Methanol in Hand Sanitizers?
When soap and/or running water is not an option, the CDC recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers as the next most effective hand hygiene practice.
Although the FDA recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers, not all 'alcohol-based hand sanitizers' are safe for you or effective at killing COVID-19.
For clarity, alcohol comes in different forms. Among them, note that isopropanol (or isopropyl alcohol) and ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol) is the ONLY acceptable alcohol for hand sanitizer, according to FDA, CDC, and WHO.
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If you ever wondered what makes these popular solvents different then keep reading. By the end of this article you will have a better understand of these compounds but don't panic if you'll chemistry is a little rusty...we'll keep it simple.
What is Alcohol and Why is it Used in Hand Sanitizers?
If you pick up a bottle of hand sanitizer chances are they contain ethyl alcohol and/or isopropyl alcohol. Both isopropyl and ethyl alcohols are used in hand sanitizer. Does one work better than the other?
You may even recognize its distinct smell! Perhaps reminding you of the rubbing alcohol in your medicine cabinet or of a tequila shot you took during a night out with your friends (*sigh*...those were the days)
If we break down the chemical make up of an alcohol we will see that the molecule is assembled from carbon (C), oxygen (O), and hydrogen (H) atoms.
When oxygen and hydrogen are boned together they can categorized as the functional group, hydroxy or hydroxyl group.
In chemistry, alcohol is an organic compound that carries at least one hydroxyl functional group (−OH) bound to a saturated carbon atom or a carbon atom with the maximum amount of hydrogen bonded.
The figure below shows the chemical structure of ethanol or ethyl alcohol, where the hydroxyl group is shown in red.
Ethyl alcohol (ethanol)
Ethyl alcohol (ethanol), or "grain" alcohol, is used widely all over the world in beverages as an intoxicating agent. It is the most popular legalized drug in the world.
The alcohol you can drink is ethanol, aka ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol. You might have a bottle of this in your liquor cabinet, since it's the kind of alcohol in any liquor that's distilled from grain, like whiskey.
The ethanol in hand sanitizer, however, is denatured and will not make you drunk, but it will make you very sick.
These two alcohols have similar structures, but their chemical variations are enough to make one drinkable and one dangerous to ingest. But when it comes to hand sanitizer, they work the same way as they both disrupt the proteins and lipids in viruses and bacteria, which kills those germs.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a solution of 65 to 70 percent alcohol using either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol in any hand sanitizer to do the job.
Yet, disturbingly, methanol (another highly-toxic form of alcohol) can be found in many hand sanitizers and surface disinfectants despite being banned in multiple countries.
Isopropyl alcohol (Rubbing Alcohol)
Isopropyl alcohol is a common household alcohol and is commonly known as rubbing alcohol.
This alcohol is similar to ethanol in the way it can kill and destroy most virus and bacteria.
However, its chemical structure is different. While ethanol contains two carbons and a hydroxyl group (-OH), isopropyl on the other hand contains three carbons and the hydroxyl group attached to the middle or second carbon.
Which begs the question: Why is methanol bad in hand sanitizer?
Let's take a look at the common types of alcohols found in hand sanitizers and why experts warn against methanol.
To begin, let's quickly examine the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Recall List…
FDA’s Do-Not-Use List
The US FDA warns against methanol-based hand sanitizers. Currently, the agency mentions about 160 hand sanitizer brands on the recall list. You can check if your hand sanitizer is on the FDA "Do Not Use" list of hand sanitizers here.
While some defaulting manufacturers have voluntarily halted production or even recalled their products, the FDA has issued directives to stop all such products from entering the market.
Recently, one of our buyers asked: "But why does FDA emphasize on methanol products? Aren't they all alcohol-based hand sanitizers?"
Although health agencies and experts unanimously adopt alcohol-based sanitizers to be used against most viruses and bacteria, the type of alcohol, concentration, and additional ingredients are key factors that determine the effectiveness and safety of your hand sanitizer.
So, no. Not all alcohol-based sanitizers meet the FDA's standard.
The CDC recommends hand sanitizers with 60 to 70 percent ethanol or percent isopropanol concentration – ONLY.
FDA mentioned that methyl alcohol (or methanol) is a no-no, due to its notably high toxicity.
That said, let's discuss the different types of alcohol, their individual effects, and safety concerns when used in hand rubs.
What is the Difference between Isopropanol and Ethanol?
Also called IPA, Isopropanol refers to alcohol derived from propene, a crude oil product. Isopropanol is commonly known as rubbing alcohol, a regular ingredient in household disinfectants.
Isopropanol is found in paint solvents, nail polish remover, rocket propellants, and pharmaceutical intermediates. It also serves as gasoline additives and the main FDA-approved ingredient for your hand sanitizers.
Isopropanol had been the common ingredient in hand sanitizers. Ethanol was scarcely used until lately – specifically in the heat of the COVID pandemic.
In February 2020, Exxon lost a facility in Baton Rouge to a massive explosion. This event affected their operations which in turn halted isopropanol production for a while.
This disruption caused a significant isopropanol shortage, which affected hand sanitizers' production just when the world needed them most.
Of course, the high demand and lean supply caused an unprecedented spike in overall cost – up to 4 times the initial cost.
As the coronavirus spreads, the need for a larger supply of isopropanol was met by chronic scarcity. For this, manufacturers looked away from isopropanol to investigate other possible ingredients for equally effective and safe hand sanitizers.
This forced manufacturers to source ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, as the replacement for isopropanol. Ethanol seemed like the most available, economical, safe, and effective replacement at the time.
Thankfully, ethyl alcohol had already been on FDA-approved ingredients for hand rubs. However, manufacturers began to source their ethanol products from big ethanol producers, including fuel additive producers and distilleries.
Ethanol is obtained from hemp, wheat, corn, sugarcane, and related natural materials; heated to sugar and starch; after which yeast is incorporated to get ethanol.
Since hand sanitizers were more in-demand, many fuel additive producers and distillers modified their operations to meet the FDA's sanitizers' standard. They tuned down the methanol concentration in their products to satisfy the FDA's hand sanitizers' content regulation.
Why Was Methanol Used In Hand Sanitizers?
Methanol is the cheapest and simplest to produce among the three alcohol options. Being widely accessible and inexpensive, some manufacturers consider methanol as a cost-efficient way to fill up the scarcity gap and meet up with the increasing demand for hand sanitizers.
The Methanol Institute (MI), however, warned against replacing isopropanol or ethyl alcohol with methyl alcohol (or methanol).
They explained that with its relatively high toxicity, methanol is only acceptable in industrial products and not in sanitizers, which increases the risk of skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation.
In the fact sheet titled "Methanol Safety During the CODVID-19 Pandemic," the MI mentioned that methanol is neither safe nor effective for hand sanitizer production or as a surface disinfectant against the coronavirus.
Although a form of alcohol, methanol does not qualify for use in surface disinfectants and hand sanitizers. Methanol breaks down and exposes the body to high toxicity.
This alcohol, which produces formic acid, is more dangerous than ethanol and isopropanol, which releases acetate and acetone, respectively.
To reiterate, for hand rub formulations, isopropanol and ethanol are FDA-approved, EPA registered, and WHO recommended options.
Besides methanol's high toxicity, the solution is also considered too weak to destroy viruses. Hence, methanol in hand sanitizers is widely condemned.
There are no guidelines or regulatory framework for producing safe and effective methanol-based hand sanitizers. Within the US, any substance with more than 4% methanol concentration is labeled "poison."
Methanol and its Adverse Effects
As a regulatory measure for the hand sanitizer market, the FDA has published a list of recalled hand sanitizers. The list contains, particularly, brands that produce hand sanitizers with extreme methanol concentration.
Even though the FDA regulatory framework marks products with over 4 percent methanol concentration as poisonous, these manufacturers completely swap out ethanol or isopropanol for methanol. That is, these products may contain as much as 70 percent methyl alcohol, or even more, as with FDA-approved isopropanol/ethanol-based products.
It is speculated that this disturbing practice is fueled by the need to bypass the high cost of isopropanol and ethanol and increase profit.
But this insensitivity has caused different forms and levels of deformity, including blindness and, in worse cases, death.
That said, the FDA has stressed a need to avoid any brand on the warning list – even though the particular product is not listed.
If you already bought a product with methanol, the FDA advises that you stop usage and dispose of them immediately.
If you suspect methanol poisoning, seek medical attention immediately. The side effects, which may take up to an hour to hit, often include –but not limited to – drowsiness, confusion, reduced consciousness, headache, and poor muscle control.
In worse cases, health and respiratory failure, vomiting, nausea are typical effects.
Let's be reminded that washing hands with soap and water remains the most effective measure against disease-causing germs like COVID 19. But where regular hand washing is unattainable, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are your best bet.
But remember that not all alcohol-based sanitizers are safe. While ethanol and isopropanol are safe and effective against some disease-causing viruses, methanol will do you more harm than good.
To stay safe, avoid any product with methanol. If you already bought one, trash it.
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About MOXĒ Premium Hand Sanitizer Gel
-70% Ethyl alcohol
-Tocopheryl acetate (Vitamin E)
-FDA-approved ingredients and facilities
-Meets U.S. quality standards (made in the USA)
-Leaping Bunny Certified
-Hypoallergenic & Dermatologist Approved
Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, MOXĒ Hand Sanitizer boasts high-standards for quality and efficacy.
Get your alcohol-based sanitizer now, and stay safe and fresh.
MOXĒ is a manufacturer of innovative health and wellness products focused on complementing any lifestyle. With our holistic approach, we add custom essential oil blends in everything we create and ensure every product is made with the highest quality ingredients to support clean living and peace of mind.
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