The Difference Between Alcohol and Ethanol

Ethanol is the only type of alcohol that you can drink

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

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 isoproyl alcohol—isopropanol—follow the same rules.

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