What is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a clear colourless liquid that dissolves readily in water. You might also know it as ethyl-alcohol, grain alcohol or just plain old alcohol. It’s a natural product, produced during fermentation via petrochemical processes or by yeast, and as well as being relatively common here, it’s even been found in interstellar clouds! Ethanol is corrosive to some materials, toxic to multiple bodily systems (particularly in large quantities), and can be considered carcinogenic especially when consumed. A denaturant is typically added to alcohol that is not being used for food or beverage purposes to give it a bitter taste and prevent consumption of the product.

Girl shopping for alcohol which can contain ethonol

What is Ethanol used for?

From a good time to a good sanitiser, ethanol has multiple uses.

Depending on the grade of the ethanol, you may find it in alcoholic beverages. It’s also commonly used in beauty and personal care products, as well as in fuel. Thanks to its effectiveness as a solvent, the substance has also found its way into a wide range of industrial products such as paints, varnishes, lacquers and general household products.

Ethanol can commonly be found in lab settings, utilised for a myriad of purposes, from a sterilising agent for sterile tissue culture through to chromatography.

As a sanitiser, diluted ethanol is commonly found in hand sanitisers and other cleaning solutions, making it ideal for fighting germs.

big night after having lots of alcohol/ethonol

Ethanol Hazards

We’ve all had a big night out when consumption of alcohol was clearly a bad idea. But what are the hazards posed by ethanol?

Ethanol poisoning does a real number on numerous bodily systems, including the nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems. 

If you happen to inhale the substance, you’ll soon find yourself with a sore throat, coughing, and general irritation of your nasal passages and respiratory system. You’ll also end up with Central Nervous System (CNS) depression – basically your neural system isn’t working as effectively, leaving you a little slow on your response times, slurred speech, staggering and more!

Got some ethanol on your skin? You’ll probably end up with a bit of irritation there too. If you happen to get it in your eyes, it’ll sting like there’s no tomorrow, leaving you with redness, irritation, and lacrimation (yes, we saw those tears!).

And finally, if you happen to ingest it in large quantities, you can say hello to effects such as: 

  • redness of your skin, 
  • rising body temperature, 
  • clammy skin, 
  • increased heart rate,
  • Drunkenness, 
  • dizziness, 
  • narcosis (yep, that explains old mate nodding off over in the corner after a few too many bevvies!), 
  • delusions, 
  • dilated pupils, 
  • tremors, 
  • Uncontrollable muscle spasms
  • Vomiting and nausea, and
  • Impaired concentration, among other things.

Once again, your CNS system will be depressed, leaving you with disturbed motor responses/slowed neurological response times and likely unable to get back into the pub or complete the task you were performing with your ethanol-containing product.

Upset man suffering from strong eye pain from ethanol eye contact

Ethanol Safety

If ingested, rinse the victim’s mouth. Do not induce vomiting. Immediately call a doctor or a poison centre. If your victim has happened to have ingested a large amount of ethanol, get them to hospital ASAP!

In case of skin or hair contact, rinse with water. If irritation persists, head to the doctor.

Got it in your eyes? If so, immediately flush your eyes with water. DO not apply a neutralizing agent. Get yourself to an ophthalmologist if irritation persists. 

Should your victim inhale ethanol, take them to the nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. If there are persistent respiratory problems, they’ll need to consult a doctor.

Ethanol Safety Handling

Safety showers and emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure.

You’ll also need to ensure there is adequate ventilation. Whenever possible, it’s recommended that ethanol should be safely handled in a laboratory. 

In terms of PPE, it’s best to pop on some safety glasses, protective and dustproof clothing and gloves (nitrile rubber gloves, PVC or neoprene recommended).

It’s important to note that ethanol is a corrosive substance, so like many other chemicals, you need to use and store it appropriately. Any piping and containers you use for ethanol need to be made of a suitable material that isn’t subject to corrosion by ethanol.

Chemwatch has the largest collection of SDS in the world. For a FREE copy of the Chemwatch-authored SDS for Ethanol, click the button below.