Ethanol vs. Isopropyl vs. Methanol: A Deep Dive into Hand Sanitizer Safety

Alcohol types in sanitizing products


A word from Germ Shark: Many of our customers—for whom we’re so very grateful—have been reaching out with concerns over methanol (methyl), a dangerous wood-based alcohol found in certain hand sanitizers. Our products are not made with methanol and instead feature the safe, FDA-approved ethanol (ethyl) alcohol. Lower your risk of undue stress and avoid confusing these ingredients.

So you’re washing your hands consistently. You’re working hard to avoid touching your face. In addition, you are using hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes with at least 60% alcohol to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus.

These are solid best practices as the pandemic marches on here in the U.S.

But are your hand sanitizer or hand wipes safe?

Steer Clear of Hand Sanitizers that more than a trace of Contain Methanol

In late June 2020, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning for hand sanitizers that contain methanol. They published a reminder in late July, and it stands to be repeated that consumers should avoid using hand sanitizers that list or contain more than a trace of this dangerous ingredient.

What’s wrong with this wood alcohol?

To start, methanol in more than a trace amount is linked to dangerous health effects such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blindness, cardiac problems, and issues affecting the central nervous system. Some poison control centers and state departments of health have even reported hospitalizations and deaths. 

In a July 2 press release, the FDA wrote

As part of continued action to protect the American public, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers and health care professionals about hand sanitizer products containing methanol, or wood alcohol—a substance often used to create fuel and antifreeze that is not an acceptable active ingredient for hand sanitizer products and can be toxic when absorbed through the skin as well as life-threatening when ingested.

The federal agency has since recalled more than 100 hand sanitizers due to safety issues involving methanol, among them a number of brands carried by Walmart and Target.

The majority of these projects were made in Mexico; some list methanol as an active ingredient, while others use FDA-approved alcohols like ethanol and isopropyl yet might have been otherwise contaminated with methanol.

It’s worth noting that even small amounts of methanol present health risks. While trace amounts of the ingredient can occur in some products and may only cause minor irritation, it’s best to avoid hand sanitizers that contain methanol altogether.

If in doubt, you can request what is called a “Certificate of Analysis,” or COA, from the manufacturer.  These tests are done by independent labs, and they are meant to confirm that a regulated product meets its product specification. They usually contain the actual results from a test performed on a sample batch of the product and will indicate if a product contains an unsafe amount of an ingredient.

Ethanol and Isopropyl: Safe Alternatives to Methanol

Germ Shark does NOT use methanol in our hand sanitizers and wipes.

Nonetheless, we urge consumers to remain vigilant while they work to maintain a clean and safe environment. The first step is to clarify what types of alcohol are safe in hand sanitizers and wipes.

In our products, we use ethanol and isopropyl alcohol. Ethanol is the same type of alcohol used in alcoholic beverages, so needless to say, ethanol is backed by the FDA and entirely safe to use.

How does it work from a disinfecting standpoint? Ethanol denatures proteins and dissolves lipids, eradicating viral cells and various bacteria as a result.

It is generally used in concentrations of 70% or higher, as higher concentrations evaporate too fast and lower concentrations don’t work as well.

Isopropyl is another safe type of alcohol used in many hand sanitizers and in some of Germ Shark’s products. More expensive than ethanol, it can double as antiseptic and is popular in a hospital setting.

How does isopropyl work? It evaporates at a similar rate and destroys viral cells and bacteria just like ethanol. Its dehydrating effects are less expansive—but isopropyl, like ethanol, is in fact a safe alternative to methanol.

To this end, ethanol and isopropyl alcohol are what the FDA recommends manufacturers use as an active ingredient in their hand sanitizers and wipes.

Consumers must still be diligent, however. The price of both ethanol and isopropyl hand sanitizers has skyrocketed due to the pandemic, which has driven up the costs of many safer, more effective hand sanitizers.  The raw wholesale cost of the bottles and packaging sanitizer and wipes go in has also risen dramatically, and some types of bottles have a 4-6 month backlog for manufacturers to get their hands on.

And while some may find cheaper alternatives appealing, far too many of these varieties cut corners by using less alcohol than advertised. (As we’ve learned these past few months, others have turned to using methanol or a methanol blend to save money.)

Even if a product doesn’t contain methanol, consumers should be weary of “alcohol-free” hand sanitizers, which aren’t as effective as their ethanol and isopropyl counterparts.

“Alcohol-Free” Hand Sanitizers Are Less Reliable

Have you ever come across hand sanitizer that doesn’t contain alcohol?

That may sound enticing at first glance, but it isn’t necessarily ideal. You see, hand sanitizer is classified as an over-the-counter drug in the United States. 

Many products advertised as hand sanitizers do not contain alcohol. Others contain less alcohol than the 60% minimum concentration the FDA recommends—an amount we’ve taken to heart here at Germ Shark. All of our products have at least 70% alcohol, and some as much as 80%.

Again, we simply want you to be aware of what’s out there. Some alcohol-free wipes and sanitizers contain benzalkonium chloride, and while this ingredient too is backed by the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims it’s less reliable than ethanol (>60%) or isopropyl (>70%) alcohol.

It’s important to be mindful of this before making a purchasing decision.

Use FDA-Approved, Commercially-Produced Hand Sanitizer When Possible

Many local mom-and-pop-style businesses have been making hand sanitizer using special emergency formulations authorized by the FDA in response to the 2020 pandemic.

The CDC, however, states that healthcare organizations should return to using commercially-prepared, FDA-approved products as supplies become available.

To make sure you’re using safe hand sanitizers in line with official guidelines and requirements—rather than an alternative from the FDA’s do-not-use list—consumers should consult the product’s label and look for identifiers such as:

  • Manufacturer name
  • Product name
  • National Drug Code (NDC) number

If any of the identifiers reflect a product on the blacklist, the FDA recommends that consumers immediately stop using the hand sanitizer before safely disposing of it. Regardless of whether the product in question contains methanol, it should not be poured down the drain or mixed with other liquids.

Hand Sanitizer Safety Is Paramount

The verdict here? Ethanol and isopropyl are safe types of alcohol used in most commercial hand sanitizers. Benzalkonium chloride is safe but less effective than the former two active ingredients, and methanol—not to be confused with ethanol—is unsafe.

Perhaps the most important thing is to be careful of the claims certain products make. Many hand sanitizers are not produced in FDA-approved facilities, including some of the options you see advertised online that claim they are FDA or WHO approved.  A quick warning sign of a potential problematic product is one that uses the FDA logo on its packaging or advertising. This is strictly prohibited by the FDA, and therefore may be a good indicator the manufacturer is not following the rules and guidelines. You may not want to trust it.

Most are indeed safe when used per the manufacturer’s instructions. And Germ Shark is here to help with your bulk santizier refills, desktop sanitizer, travel hand sanitizer, mini hand sanitizer, and disinfecting hand sanitizing wipe needs as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

An added bonus: Every purchase you make of Germ Shark’s hand sanitizer will help others as a result of our Buy 1 Give 1 Bottle donation program.

Have questions about what we do, or insights into keeping your hands clean? Please note that our hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes contain 70% or higher ethanol or isopropyl and are completely safe for consumers to use. And of course, don’t hesitate to contact us for more information on our products, which kill 99.99% of all germs.


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