Science, Tech, Math › Science The Difference Between Alcohol and Ethanol Ethanol is the only type of alcohol that you can drink Share Flipboard Email Print All ethanol is alcohol, but not all alcohol is ethanol. Steve Allen, Getty Images Science Chemistry Basics Chemical Laws Molecules Periodic Table Projects & Experiments Scientific Method Biochemistry Physical Chemistry Medical Chemistry Chemistry In Everyday Life Famous Chemists Activities for Kids Abbreviations & Acronyms Biology Physics Geology Astronomy Weather & Climate By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Chemistry Expert Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. our editorial process Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Updated December 04, 2019 The distinction between alcohol and ethanol is pretty simple. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is the only type of alcohol that you can drink without seriously harming yourself, and then only if it hasn't been denatured or doesn't contain toxic impurities. Ethanol is sometimes called grain alcohol because it is the main type of alcohol produced by grain fermentation. Methanol and Isopropyl Alcohol Other types of alcohol include methanol (methyl alcohol) and isopropanol (rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol). "Alcohol" refers to any chemical having an -OH functional group (hydroxyl) bound to a saturated carbon atom. In some cases, you can substitute one alcohol for another or use a mixture of alcohols. However, each alcohol is a distinct molecule, with its own melting point, boiling point, reactivity, toxicity, and other properties. If a specific alcohol is mentioned for a project, don't make substitutions. This is especially important if the alcohol is to be used in foods, drugs, or cosmetics. You can recognize that a chemical is an alcohol if it has the "-ol" ending. Other alcohols may have names starting with a hydroxy- prefix. "Hydroxy" appears in a name if there is a higher priority functional group in the molecule. Origin of 'Ethanol' Ethyl alcohol got the name "ethanol" in 1892 as a combination of the word "ethane"—the name of the carbon chain—and the "-ol" ending for an alcohol. The common names for methyl alcohol—methanol—and isopropyl alcohol—isopropanol—follow the same rules. The bottom line is that all ethanol is alcohol, but not all alcohols are ethanol.