More than at any time in recent history, disinfectants and cleaners are part of the national conversation. Not just health professionals. From public transit workers to families looking to protect their children, everyone is now asking questions like “How does isopropyl alcohol work?”
These are very relevant questions as the threat of COVID-19 hangs over our heads. This article delves into the details of isopropyl alcohol and its potential as a cleaning and disinfectant.
In a lab setting, it might be called isopropyl alcohol. But on drugstore shelves, you’ll see it listed as isopropyl alcohol, or just rubbing alcohol. In short, isopropanol belongs to the chemical class of secondary alcohols – in simple terms, it refers to an alcohol carbon atom bonded to two other carbon atoms.
With the development of chemicals, isopropyl alcohol is relatively easy to manufacture and has a wide range of applications. It is a common staple, as a stand-alone chemical, and in a blend for disinfectants, cleaners, and preservatives. More on this and the actual “how” in the sections below.
Isopropyl Alcohol and COVID-19
In medicine cabinets across the country, rubbing alcohol bottles are almost a common occurrence. Parents keep it handy to clean fresh scrapes, while others use it to remove mucus from hard surfaces. When COVID-19 surfaced, isopropyl alcohol was like a hero right under our noses.
The role of isopropyl alcohol in the pandemic has been a basic defense. Almost any hard surface can be cleaned thoroughly with rubbing alcohol. It is used for scrubbing commercial spaces and public areas, as well as tables, floors, doorknobs, and more in private homes. From a chemical manufacturing perspective, it is in high demand as a key ingredient in hand sanitizers and personal sanitizers.
Other Applications of Isopropyl Alcohol
Besides disinfection, what is the use of isopropyl alcohol? Commercial use goes well beyond cleaning surfaces. Isopropyl alcohol is an excellent solvent: it dissolves non-polar compounds effectively.
Another notable use of isopropyl alcohol is in the automotive sector. The chemical is used in what’s known as a “gas dryer” because it prevents the harmful separation of gasoline and water in the fuel line that can lead to freezing and other damage. Isopropyl alcohol dissolves water, so it doesn’t pose the same risk.
What is the actual effect of isopropyl alcohol?
The chemical properties of isopropanol make it ideal for these applications. But how exactly does it work? Let’s start with personal care and disinfection.
COVID-19 is a virus. Viruses are different from infectious bacteria, but the two do have something in common—how they survive outside their host. Bacteria and viruses protect their interiors with membranes composed of oil and water. While intact, the membrane allows microbes to persist for long periods of time on surfaces like tabletops, doors, floors — you name it. But if the membrane is destroyed, the microbes die instantly.
Isopropyl alcohol dissolves these protective oils and dries bacteria or viruses. That’s why healthcare facilities routinely wipe down surfaces, and why, in the wake of COVID-19, nearly everyone is taking precautions to keep personal property sterile with rubbing alcohol or other disinfectants.
In industrial applications, isopropyl alcohol has many of the same properties. As a solvent, it doesn’t leave any grease behind when it evaporates (that’s why it’s a great water substitute for cleaning glasses smudges). What’s more, it’s relatively non-toxic, so it can be used in many consumer products.
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