Alcohol Versus Ethanol

Know the Difference Between Alcohol and Ethanol

All ethanol is alcohol, but not all alcohol is ethanol.
All ethanol is alcohol, but not all alcohol is ethanol. Steve Allen, Getty Images

Do you understand the distinction between alcohol and ethanol? It's pretty easy, really. Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is one type of alcohol. It's the only type of alcohol that you can drink without seriously harming yourself, and then only if it has not been denatured or does not contain toxic impurities. Ethanol is sometimes called grain alcohol, since it is the main type of alcohol produced by grain fermentation.

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 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 higher priority functional group in the molecule.

Ethyl alcohol got the name "ethanol" in 1892 as a word that combined the word ethane (the name of the carbon chain) with the -ol ending for an alcohol. The common names for methyl alcohol and isoproyl alcohol follow the same rules, becoming methanol and isopropanol.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is, all ethanol is alcohol, but not all alcohols are ethanol.