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Ethanol vs. Isopropanol — What's the Difference?

Edited by Tayyaba Rehman — By Fiza Rafique — Updated on October 10, 2023
Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is a primary alcohol often used in beverages; isopropanol, or isopropyl alcohol, is a secondary alcohol used mainly as a solvent and disinfectant.
Ethanol vs. Isopropanol — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Ethanol and Isopropanol


Key Differences

Ethanol and isopropanol are both alcohols, but they have different chemical structures and distinct applications. Ethanol, with the chemical formula C2H5OH, is commonly known as ethyl alcohol. It's the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and spirits. In addition to its role in beverages, ethanol is used as a fuel additive (ethyl alcohol or ethanol fuel) and has various industrial applications. Due to its intoxicating effects, its consumption is regulated, and it's taxed differently than other alcohols used for non-beverage purposes.
Isopropanol, having the chemical formula C3H8O, is known as isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol. Unlike ethanol, it's not suitable for consumption. Isopropanol is mainly recognized for its use as a solvent and disinfectant. Its antiseptic properties make it invaluable in households and medical settings, where it's used for cleaning surfaces and disinfecting wounds. When compared to ethanol, isopropanol is more toxic and can be harmful if ingested.
The distinction in their chemical structures leads to different physical and chemical properties. While both alcohols can act as solvents, their effectiveness varies depending on the substance being dissolved. For instance, certain resins and oils may dissolve better in isopropanol than ethanol.
Moreover, both ethanol and isopropanol have a sanitizing effect, killing microorganisms on surfaces. However, their concentrations and the duration of exposure required to achieve disinfection can differ. For instance, hand sanitizers often contain ethanol as the active ingredient, but isopropanol-based versions also exist.
In conclusion, while ethanol and isopropanol belong to the same class of chemicals—alcohols—their distinct structures define their unique characteristics and uses. Recognizing these differences is crucial for their safe and effective application in various contexts.

Comparison Chart

Common Names

Ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol
Isopropyl alcohol, rubbing alcohol

Chemical Formula



Alcoholic beverages, fuel additive, industrial solvent
Disinfectant, solvent, cleaning agent


Consumable in beverages, but toxic in high amounts
Not suitable for consumption

Position of OH group

Primary alcohol (OH group attached to a primary carbon)
Secondary alcohol (OH group attached to a secondary carbon)

Compare with Definitions


Ethanol can describe a natural byproduct of fermentation.
The yeast broke down the sugars, producing ethanol.


Isopropanol can describe a secondary alcohol with a specific chemical structure.
The isopropanol molecule has its OH group attached to a secondary carbon.


Ethanol refers to the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages.
She chose a drink with a high ethanol content.


Isopropanol denotes a solvent used in laboratories and industries.
The scientist used isopropanol to purify the substance.


Ethanol implies a solvent used in various industrial processes.
The lab technician used ethanol to dissolve the sample.


Isopropanol refers to a common household disinfectant.
She cleaned the wound with isopropanol before applying a bandage.


Ethanol denotes a fuel additive and alternative fuel.
The car runs on a blend of gasoline and ethanol.


Isopropanol suggests a liquid that evaporates quickly.
He used isopropanol to clean the electronics because it evaporates without leaving a residue.


Ethanol suggests a disinfectant used in hand sanitizers.
The hand sanitizer contains 70% ethanol to kill germs.


Isopropanol implies an alcohol not suitable for consumption.
Ingesting isopropanol can be toxic and life-threatening.


Ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, drinking alcohol, or simply alcohol) is an organic chemical compound. It is a simple alcohol with the chemical formula C2H6O. Its formula can be also written as CH3−CH2−OH or C2H5OH (an ethyl group linked to a hydroxyl group), and is often abbreviated as EtOH. Ethanol is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid with a slight characteristic odor.


(organic compound) The aliphatic alcohol 2-propanol; isopropyl alcohol


See alcohol.


Alcohol used as antifreeze or a solvent


(organic compound) A simple aliphatic alcohol formally derived from ethane by replacing one hydrogen atom with a hydroxyl group: CH3-CH2-OH.


Specifically, this alcohol as a fuel.


The organic compound C2H5.OH, the common alcohol which is the intoxicating agent in beer, wine, and other fermented and distilled liquors; called also ethyl alcohol. It is used pure or denatured as a solvent or in medicines and colognes and cleaning solutions, or mixed in gasoline as a fuel for automobiles, and as a rocket fuel (as in the V-2 rocket).


The intoxicating agent in fermented and distilled liquors; used pure or denatured as a solvent or in medicines and colognes and cleaning solutions and rocket fuel; proposed as a renewable clean-burning additive to gasoline

Common Curiosities

What's the primary use of isopropanol in homes?

In homes, isopropanol, often called rubbing alcohol, is mainly used as a disinfectant.

Are both ethanol and isopropanol used in hand sanitizers?

Yes, both can be used in hand sanitizers, but their concentrations might differ.

Can you use isopropanol to make alcoholic beverages?

No, isopropanol is not suitable or safe for consumption in beverages.

Is ethanol flammable?

Yes, ethanol is flammable and is even used as a fuel additive.

Can you drink both ethanol and isopropanol?

You can drink ethanol (as it's in alcoholic beverages), but not isopropanol, which is toxic if ingested.

Can ethanol be used as an antiseptic?

Yes, ethanol can be used as an antiseptic, especially in hand sanitizers.

Can you mix ethanol and isopropanol?

While they can be mixed, it's crucial to understand the purpose and effects of the mixture, especially if used as a disinfectant.

Which alcohol is more effective at killing bacteria?

Both ethanol and isopropanol can effectively kill bacteria, but their effectiveness can depend on concentration and contact time.

Is it safe to apply isopropanol on the skin?

Yes, isopropanol is often applied to the skin as a disinfectant, but it can be drying.

Why shouldn't you drink isopropanol?

Isopropanol is toxic when ingested and can lead to poisoning, organ damage, or even death.

Why is ethanol added to gasoline?

Ethanol is added to gasoline to reduce emissions, enhance octane levels, and extend fuel supplies.

Can ethanol be used to clean wounds?

While it's possible, ethanol can sting and might not be the first choice for wound cleaning compared to other disinfectants.

What are the dangers of inhaling isopropanol fumes?

Inhaling isopropanol fumes can lead to respiratory irritation, dizziness, and in high concentrations, more severe health effects.

Can isopropanol be used to remove sticky residues?

Yes, isopropanol can dissolve many adhesives and is often used to remove sticky residues.

How are ethanol and isopropanol produced?

Ethanol is often produced by fermenting sugars, while isopropanol is typically made from propene in the presence of water.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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