How It’s Made:

The Ethyl Alcohol in Your Hand Sanitizer

It’s been a long and complicated journey for Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, found in your hand sanitizer. The journey sometimes begins with fossil fuels or, in our case, with plants. In fact, any vegetable matter containing sugar can be converted to ethanol.

How is ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer made?

Ethanol in fermented foods and beverages has been in our food chain for centuries.

Besides tasting good in wines and liquors, ethanol is also a renewable fuel made from various plant materials, collectively known as “biomass.” More than 98% of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol, typically E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline), to oxygenate the fuel, which reduces air pollution.

Starch- and Sugar-Based Ethanol Feedstocks

Corn Ethyl Alcohol Saniitzer

Today, nearly all ethanol produced in the world is derived from starch- and sugar-based feedstocks. The sugars in these feedstocks are easy to extract and ferment, making large-scale ethanol production affordable. Corn is the leading U.S. crop and serves as the feedstock for most domestic ethanol production. Corn ethanol is limited to 15 billion gallons to ensure there is enough to supply livestock feed, human food, and export markets. In other countries, such as Brazil and India, sugar cane is the main feedstock.

Corn Ethyl Alcohol Saniitzer

Cellulosic Ethanol Feedstocks

Renewable Cellulose Hand Sanitizer Alcohol

Corn stover consists of the leaves, stalks, and cobs of maize (corn) plants left in a field after harvest; it makes up about half of the yield of a corn crop. In order to avoid depleting the world’s food supply and reduce waste, cellulosic crop and wood residues and food wastes like corncobs, straw, sugarcane fiber after sugar extraction, banana fiber, and pine needles are being studied as potential sources of ethanol.

It’s more challenging to release the sugars in these feedstocks for conversion to ethanol, but the environmental benefits are critical. Many renewable fuel research teams are working with using these materials, rather than discarding them. Less fossil fuel energy is required to grow, collect, and convert them to ethanol, and they are not used for human food.

Renewable Cellulose Hand Sanitizer Alcohol

Ethanol in hand sanitizers

Ethyl Alcohol in Hand Sanitizer Safe

After many years of research on ethanol as an effective hand antiseptic or antimicrobial product, the first hand sanitizer was launched in the US in 1997. Popularity grew with CDC recommendations and use by the Army.

Hand sanitizers are over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA regulates active ingredients used in “consumer antiseptic rub” products that are also referred to as leave-on products or hand sanitizers, as well as to consumer antiseptic wipes. These products are left on and not rinsed off with water.

Ethyl Alcohol in Hand Sanitizer Safe

We are all aware that frequent and effective handwashing is an important habit to prevent the spread of contagious bacteria and viruses.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers have been used as an effective alternative to handwashing, and are intended to be used when soap and water are not available.

Alcohols have a nonspecific mode of action, destroying and coagulating cell proteins. Ethanol has a strong immediate bactericidal activity that is observed at 30% and higher concentrations. The spectrum of virucidal activity is largely dependent on the concentration of ethanol. Higher concentrations of ethanol generally have better virucidal activity than do lower concentrations, especially against naked viruses and most other clinically relevant viruses. Most naked viruses such as poliovirus , astroviruses , feline calicivirus, rotaviruses , and echoviruses are inactivated by ethanol as well.

According to the tentative final FDA monograph for health care antiseptic products, ethanol is considered to be generally effective at between 60 and 95%. In fact, absolute alcohol, or alcohol that is no more than one percent water, is less bactericidal than 60-95% alcohol. Water is thus critical in destroying essential metabolic pathways and damaging membranes. It is important to note, however, that alcohols kill active bacteria, not dormant spores.

Alcohols are considered to be among the safest antiseptics available and generally have no toxic effect on human skin. The skin barrier remains intact, dermal hydration does not change significantly, and the dermal sebum content remains unchanged, but adding moisturizing agents like glycerin, aloe and green tea and other emollients can reduce or eliminate dry skin.

Ethanol Based Hand Saniitzers

An Inside Look at Ethyl Alcohol, from the President’s Desk and Scientific Team at PlaneAire®

Sharing our insight is a responsibility we take seriously as a company. Our team of creative and scientific professionals regularly investigates, discusses and shares the latest information, and we take pride in following the pulse of health science, and regularly consulting with esteemed medical experts from around the globe.


  • Golin AP, Choi D. and Ghahary A. Hand sanitizers: A review of ingredients, mechanisms of action, modes of delivery, and efficacy against coronaviruses. Am J Infect Control. 2020 Sep; 48(9): 1062–1067.
  • Thomas P. Long-term survival of bacillus spores in alcohol and identification of 90% ethanol as relatively more spori/bactericidal. Curr Microbiol. 2012;64:130–139.

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