Alcohols as Disinfectants and Antiseptics


(a) Ethyl alcohol, the intoxicating ingredient found in alcoholic drinks, is also used commonly as a disinfectant. (b) Isopropyl alcohol, also called rubbing alcohol, has a related molecular structure and is another commonly used disinfectant. (credit a photo: modification of work by D Coetzee; credit b photo: modification of work by Craig Spurrier)

Alcohols make up another group of chemicals commonly used as disinfectants and antiseptics. They work by rapidly denaturing proteins, which inhibits cell metabolism, and by disrupting membranes, which leads to cell lysis. Once denatured, the proteins may potentially refold if enough water is present in the solution. Alcohols are typically used at concentrations of about 70% aqueous solution and, in fact, work better in aqueous solutions than 100% alcohol solutions. This is because alcohols coagulate proteins. In higher alcohol concentrations, rapid coagulation of surface proteins prevents effective penetration of cells. The most commonly used alcohols for disinfection are ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol, rubbing alcohol).

Alcohols tend to be bactericidal and fungicidal, but may also be viricidal for enveloped viruses only. Although alcohols are not sporicidal, they do inhibit the processes of sporulation and germination. Alcohols are volatile and dry quickly, but they may also cause skin irritation because they dehydrate the skin at the site of application. One common clinical use of alcohols is swabbing the skin for degerming before needle injection. Alcohols also are the active ingredients in instant hand sanitizers, which have gained popularity in recent years. The alcohol in these hand sanitizers works both by denaturing proteins and by disrupting the microbial cell membrane, but will not work effectively in the presence of visible dirt.

Last, alcohols are used to make tinctures with other antiseptics, such as the iodine tinctures. All in all, alcohols are inexpensive and quite effective for the disinfection of a broad range of vegetative microbes. However, one disadvantage of alcohols is their high volatility, limiting their effectiveness to immediately after application.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments