Alcohol is a versatile chemical that can take on many forms and names, depending on its intended use. It can be dramatically changed from an enjoyable beverage to a toxic fuel to a disinfectant. Both denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol have a variety of uses in everyday life. However, they should never be used interchangeably as they are made for different applications.
Chemically, alcohol is an organic compound that includes carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The grouping and number of each atom determines the type of alcohol. Alcohol is created naturally from fermentation of yeast cells. The basic form of alcohol is ethanol, which is used in alcoholic drinks. It is clear, colourless and flammable. It is from this pure alcohol which subsequent types of alcohol are made.
Denatured alcohol is ethanol alcohol that has been altered so as to make it undrinkable and poisonous. The chemical structure of the alcohol, however, is not changed. The most common way to denature alcohol is to add methanol, a wood alcohol that is colourless and poisonous. Denatured alcohol is an effective cleaner, typically used as a spot cleaner to remove ink stains from clothes. It's often used a camping stove fuel as it burns clean and hot and can be extinguished with water. Boat owners may know it as methylated spirits, while others know it as shellac thinner or liquid fondue fuel.
Also called isopropanol, this type of alcohol is created through a process using a combination of water and propene, an organic compound. Isopropyl alcohol is used as a solvent and cleaning fluid, based on its characteristic of drying quickly. It is often used to clean electronic devices such as laser lenses in DVD and CD drives. Isopropyl alcohol is an effective disinfectant and seen in health-care settings as a disinfectant solution. It's also known as rubbing alcohol and is typically available in 70 per cent to 90 per cent isopropyl concentrations.
Denatured Alcohol Safety
The flammable characteristic of denatured alcohol causes it to produce an almost invisible flame, so extreme caution is advised when near open flame or other ignition sources. By its very definition, denatured alcohol is poisonous either through oral ingestion or skin application. Its vapours can cause suffocation or dizziness. First-aid measures for inhalation are to move to fresh air and give oxygen or artificial respiration if difficulty breathing. If eyes are exposed flush them with water for 15 minutes minimum. Wash skin with soap and water.
Isopropyl Alcohol Safety
Isopropyl alcohol is also flammable. It irritates the eyes and other mucus membranes. To treat, rinse the affected area with water for several minutes, followed by medical attention. Swallowing isopropyl alcohol can lead to vomiting, nausea and gastrointestinal distress. Treat by rinsing the mouth, but do not induce vomiting. Seek medical treatment. Inhalation of isopropyl alcohol causes dizziness, coughing, headache, sore throat and drowsiness. Treat with lots of fresh air and seek medical evaluation.