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What Is Isopropyl Alcohol and How Is It Used?
Isopropyl alcohol (2-propanol), also known as isopropanol or IPA, is the most common and widely used disinfectant within pharmaceutics, hospitals, cleanrooms, and electronics or medical device manufacturing. Different solutions, purity grades, concentrations, and alcohol types yield beneficial cleaning and disinfection properties when applied correctly; or dangerous consequences when used improperly. This post will help you identify key uses, best practices, and proper disinfection with isopropyl alcohol. Likewise you can see our other posts on IPA as a universal cleaner and the importance of high-quality USP IPA.
Why Is 70% the Most Effective Concentration of Isopropyl Alcohol for Disinfection?
Isopropyl alcohol, particularly in solutions between 60% and 90% alcohol with 10 – 40% purified water, is rapidly antimicrobial against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Once alcohol concentrations drop below 50%, usefulness for disinfection drops sharply. Notably, higher concentrations of alcohol don’t generate more desirable bactericidal, virucidal, or fungicidal properties.
The presence of water is a crucial factor in destroying or inhibiting the growth of pathogenic microorganisms with isopropyl alcohol. Water acts as a catalyst and plays a key role in denaturing the proteins of vegetative cell membranes. 70% IPA solutions penetrate the cell wall more completely which permeates the entire cell, coagulates all proteins, and therefore the microorganism dies. Extra water content slows evaporation, therefore increasing surface contact time and enhancing effectiveness. Isopropyl alcohol concentrations over 91% coagulate proteins instantly. Consequently, a protective layer is created which protects other proteins from further coagulation.
Solutions > 91% IPA do kill bacteria, but sometimes require longer contact times for disinfection, and enable spores to lie in a dormant state without being killed. In this analysis, a 50% isopropyl alcohol solution kills Staphylococcus Aureus in less than 10 seconds (pg. 238), yet a 90% solution with a contact time of over two hours is ineffective. Some disinfectants will kill spores, which are classified as chemical sterilants. So why do higher alcohol solutions yield fewer results for bactericidal and antimicrobial outcomes?
Some bacteria transform into spore cells when external conditions are unfavorable; the result is reduced metabolic activity, higher ‘cidal’ resistance, and immunity from alcohol-based disinfectants. Spores lie dormant, and once conditions become favorable again, the microbe converts back to a vegetative state and grows actively.
When examining the effectiveness of IPA, accurately translating its benefits and shortcomings require distinctions of identity, purity, sterility, and intended use. Disinfection, unlike sterilization, does not provide sporicidal attributes.
Is Sterilization with Isopropanol (AKA Isopropyl Alcohol or IPA) Possible?
Proper Uses of Isopropyl Alcohol Require Distinction Between Sanitation, Sterilization, and Disinfection
Terms like disinfection and sterilization are often misunderstood and should not be used interchangeably. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines terminology clearly:
Unlike sterilization, disinfection is not sporicidal. A few disinfectants will kill spores with prolonged exposure times (3–12 hours); these are called chemical sterilants. At similar concentrations but with shorter exposure periods (e.g., 20 minutes for 2% glutaraldehyde), these same disinfectants will kill all microorganisms except large numbers of bacterial spores; they are called high-level disinfectants.
Antiseptics are germicides applied to living tissue and skin; disinfectants are antimicrobials applied only to inanimate objects. In general, antiseptics are used only on the skin and not for surface disinfection, and disinfectants are not used for skin antisepsis because they can injure skin and other tissues. Virucide, fungicide, bactericide, sporicide, and tuberculocide can kill the type of microorganism identified by the prefix. For example, a bactericide is an agent that kills bacteria.