Aqueous solutions of 60% to 80% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol rapidly kill vegetative bacteria and fungi. They do not, however, reliably destroy bacterial endospores and some naked viruses. Alcohol probably acts by coagulating enzymes and other essential proteins and by damaging lipid membranes. Proteins are more soluble and denature more easily in alcohol mixed with water, which is why aqueous solutions are more effective than pure alcohol.

Solutions of alcohol are commonly used as antiseptics to degerm skin in preparation for procedures such as injections that break intact skin, and as disinfectants for treating instruments and surfaces. They are also used to enhance the antimicrobial activity of some other chemicals. They may damage some materials, however, such as rubber and some plastics. They are relatively non-toxic and inexpensive, and do not leave a residue, but they evaporate quickly, which limits their effective contact time and, consequently, their germicidal effectiveness.

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