How Effective is Alcohol at Killing Germs and Bacteria? | Muse Health

Alcohol     Bacteria     Germs     CDC

In the middle of a global pandemic like COVID-19, there are certain questions that come to mind. As the world becomes more health care conscious and continues learning about pathogens and microbes, one such question is: how effective is alcohol at killing germs and bacteria? The short answer is very effective. However, there are certain caveats that need to be accounted for if you want the most effective solution possible. Working like a wonder drug, alcohol has become the go-to active ingredient in several cleaning agents. A powerful antiseptic, alcohol is much more complex than meets the eye.

Below you’ll learn about alcohol and whether it truly is effective in fighting off diseases.

Bottle of Alcohol Being Poured on Cotton Wipe

How does alcohol kill germs?

A lot of times when people buy products with alcohol listed as the active ingredient, they assume that the product is of high quality and great at disinfecting surfaces. While alcohol does work for killing germs and bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an alcohol-based product needs to have a certain percentage of alcohol for it to be effective. That magic number is 60 percent alcohol content. Before diving into numbers, understanding how alcohol kills germs is important.

Alcohol has been used as a sterilizing and cleaning agent for centuries. Since as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, alcohol was used to treat illness and infections suffered by the populace. Oblivious to the scientific reasons why alcohol worked, as the discipline of science developed and alcohol was studied, it became evident that ancient societies were onto something.

The rubbing alcohols which most people use to clean surfaces are solutions of either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. Both of these alcohol types derive from the same family and are known as amphiphile chemical compounds. The amazing thing about these compounds is that they are able to seamlessly bond together with bacteria and break their plasma membranes. When you think of bacteria, it is best to visualize it as a dome that is filled with small organelles and is kept together with a plasma membrane. Although the plasma membrane is tough, if punctured, bacterial cell walls lose structural integrity.

Alcohol is able to dissolve bacteria because it easily bonds together with the water and protein that makes up bacteria. Once alcohol punctures through the plasma membrane, bacteria cannot survive.

When alcohol bonds with molecules located inside of a cell’s membrane, it makes the cell soluble to water. As the structure of the cell grows weaker, more alcohol enters the body. For example, if you ever suffered from a leaking ceiling, you know that if you do not act quickly, that one spot will continue to grow until your entire roof collapses. It’s the same thing with a cell’s membrane. Once alcohol penetrates through the surface, it continues dissolving the cell’s wall.

As alcohol dissolves proteins, in a process known as denaturation, amino acids located inside of the protein quickly begin losing its structural integrity. Bacteria cannot exist without protein and as a result, dies off.

Does alcohol kill germs in the body?

Since alcoholic beverages contain alcohol used in hand sanitizers, many people may wonder if consuming alcohol can kill germs located inside of the body. Like many things in life, the answer is ambiguous.

For hand sanitizers to be effective, they must have at least 60% percent alcohol. The alcoholic beverages you consume on weekends and lonely weekdays is composed of way less than that. There have been studies conducted about this specific topic with one finding that beverages with 40% alcohol content were slightly effective in the inhibition of bacterial growth. Before you drive to your nearest liquor store and buy beer, 40% alcohol content would be the equivalent of drinking vodka straight. The beer and wine that you drink during meals or parties is about 10% alcohol. The study found that a number so low was ineffective.

Unfortunately, no matter how much alcohol you consume, it won’t make much of a change to the illnesses that are already inside your body. For example, if you’re suffering from a common cold, drinking alcohol will not kill enough bacteria to make you better. When you’re ill, those infections run through your entire body, via the bloodstream.

Drinking an alcoholic beverage with 60-80% alcohol would cause more damage than good as the body cannot withstand something so drastic. Because alcohol dries surfaces, if you consume a large amount, it will dry out your throat, making it much easier for cracks and abrasions to form.

When you’re trying to recover from illness, keeping the body hydrated is important. Alcohol dehydrates the body, causing more issues.

Does alcohol kill germs on all surfaces?

It should come as no surprise that alcohol works as a great disinfectant in cleaning products. Not only can it be used to promote healthy hand hygiene but it also works on a multitude of surfaces. As with hand sanitizers, it is important to use products that have at least 60% concentration of alcohol. As discussed earlier, 60 is the magic number that helps to break down the plasma membrane of bacteria. Although formulations with lower numbers may cause damage, without full penetration, bacteria will still thrive and multiply.

When using alcohol-based products to disinfect your home, make sure to read the instructions. Each product has different ways to maximize the effectiveness of use. In order to ensure that your product works to its optimum capabilities, you should remove visible debris before beginning the disinfection process. As when using hand sanitizer, if there is visible soil on a surface, the solution will only be able to cleanse as much as it has access to.

Remember that some viruses can live on surfaces for a week. Use your alcohol-based products to cleanse high traffic areas like counters and cabinets a few times per week

Cleaning Supllies, Clock and Rubber Glove Hand with A thumbs Up on Pink Background

How long does it take alcohol to kill germs?

One important aspect of using alcohol is knowing how long to keep it on a surface. Everyone has been guilty of squeezing hand sanitizer into their hand and rubbing it for a few seconds before drying the rest of the solution on your pants or shirt. In order to make sure that your hands or other surfaces stay clean and sanitized, 30 seconds has become the gold standard that you should aim for. Although alcohol is a fast-acting substance, leaving it on surfaces for 30 seconds allows it to fully sink in and break down cells.

Does alcohol kill all germs?

As long as you have an alcohol-based substance with at least 60% alcohol concentration, it can kill a broad spectrum of germs. These kinds of germs include bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Alcohol is a great method to kill bacteria like E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus.

However, there have been studies that show that certain viruses like Enterococcus Faecalis are resistant to alcohol-based products. Enterococcus Faecalis also known as E. faecalis is a bacteria that lives inside of the GI tract. These bacteria are known to be resilient and can survive in hot, salty, and acidic environments. This resistance to extreme environments means that some strands are also resistant to alcohol and its properties.

There are so many bacteria on the planet that one substance cannot kill all of them. Alcohol is versatile in the number of germs that can be killed while being used. Make sure to use the proper alcohol concentration and massage the solution into whatever surface you’re trying to cleanse for the best results. If you're using hand sanitizers and are worried about dryness, look for products that use aloe vera or Vitamin E.

Different Bottles of Alcohol Grouped Together

What are the different types of alcohol?

When you say the word “alcohol” many people may think that it is an all-encompassing word. Alcohol is derived from several sources, all within the same family. Each of these sources can be used for sanitizing areas like hands and kitchen counters.

Rubbing alcohol

The active ingredient in rubbing alcohol is isopropanol which also goes by the name isopropyl alcohol. The average bottle of rubbing alcohol contains anywhere from 60 to 80 percent isopropanol which is then dissolved in water. The great thing about rubbing alcohol is that it has many uses. It can kill a wide range of bacteria and viruses. Not only does it work to keep your hands clean but it is (arguably) more effective on surfaces like countertops. Some studies have stated that at 70 percent or higher, isopropanol has the ability to kill some strands of the coronavirus.

50/75/91 alcohol

Although the magic number for effective hand sanitizer solutions is 60% there is still debate about numbers that are just shy or higher than the recommended amount. While 50 is only 10 numbers lower than 60, it makes a world of difference when it comes to creating a solution that kills germs. The recommended amount for a powerful solution falls between 60-80. At 91% alcohol concentration, the solution is too powerful. That may seem like an odd thing to say but alcohol needs a good amount of water in the solution. If not available, it will fry the outside of the cell and evaporate before penetrating the inside of a cell. At 75% alcohol concentration, you have an ideal amount of alcohol and water to fight and kill germs.

Drinking Alcohol

The active ingredient in drinking alcohol is ethanol. The alcohol that you drink can be used to clean surfaces and fight off infectious diseases. However, consuming too much alcohol will affect your organs and could even lead to death. Although ethanol is found in some hand sanitizers, never drink these solutions as the internal damage is irreversible. It can have a negative effect on your immune system leaving you more susceptible to infections.

Alcohol 101

Alcohol is an incredible substance that can be used in a variety of ways. While it isn’t able to kill every bacteria under the sun, its ability to link with the protein membranes of countless bacteria makes it a great weapon to have during flu season. With a consistent hand washing regimen combined with alcohol-based products, you will ensure the safety of yourself and your family by fighting off all types of germs.