Can I use potable alcohol to sterizile a thermometer?
October 10, 2015 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Can I use vodka and whiskey to sterilize stuff?

I have a cold and, at the beginning, when I was feeling clammy, I took my temperature. Not wanting to leave cold virus on the thermometer and not wanting to boil it, in case that would damage the thermocouple, I filled a shot glass half way with whiskey and dunked the end in. I then did some research to see how long to leave it in for. All the internet resources I found told me that I actually needed 70%+ alcohol by volume to sterilize it. When I posted about this to Facebook, a friend of mine who just finished a biochemistry PhD said that the whiskey actually would help, but would not be as good as 70%+ alcohol. I'm inclined to listen to my friend, given his qualifications, but I'm really not sure.

Beyond the thermometer, I'm also thinking of things like cleaning a cutting board or kitchen counters with the really horrible vodka that seems to get left over from parties.

(The whiskey, even if it did not sterilize the needle, was not wasted. The needle was subsequently washed as thoroughly as possible.)
posted by Hactar to Science & Nature (16 answers total)
Best answer: The CDC says you need 60-90% alcohol to effectively kill bacteria, and even cask strength whiskey is lower than that, so basically no.
posted by aubilenon at 11:57 AM on October 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, for kitchen counters it's probably fine, since they don't really need to be sterile and they wouldn't stay sterile for more than a minute anyway, so there's no real reason not to pour vodka all over them
posted by aubilenon at 11:58 AM on October 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

If it sterilized anything, you wouldn't be able to drink it. Also, sterilization by alcohol works by evaporating the alcohol. It would just get your counter sticky because of all the included sugar, which would just harbor bacteria.

Kind of wondering how well everclear would do, though.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:03 PM on October 10, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks! So from the CDC link, low concentrations are effective against certain bacteria, but against viruses, I need higher strength stuff. Given that I'm most worried about e. coli and salmonella when dealing with kitchen stuff, I'm going to opt for either super diluted bleach or just get a thing of rubbing alcohol.
posted by Hactar at 12:06 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you want to use alcohol to sterilize things, go buy a bottle of 95% ethanol at the pharmacy for $4. Use the horrible vodka to infuse things. Make your own vanilla extract or bacon vodka or what have you.
posted by ssg at 12:06 PM on October 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

For cutting boards and kitchen counters and such, you can use a homemade bleach solution as a sanitizer instead.
posted by zachlipton at 12:10 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you are just looking for ways to use up cheap vodka, you can use it to remove odors from clothing - like this.
posted by bunderful at 12:15 PM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Continuing the uses for cheap vodka theme it is also excellent at getting red wine stains out of fabric. Runs it straight out if you get it immediately, otherwise requires some soaking.
posted by roolya_boolya at 12:40 PM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would use the cheap vodka to make Penne alla Vodka.* I like to serve the penne alla vodka with sweet Italian turkey sausage.

As far as other things you might already have in your home:

I've found white vinegar to be very useful for cleaning various household surfaces (especially since I have pets and worry about using certain chemicals where they could get to them since they have a tendency to lick floors, etc). Based on a quick google search it seems like undiluted vinegar can be used to disinfect wood cutting boards. I've used it to deal with damp surfaces that were starting to build up mild from humidity (like shower window, etc). For more vinegar uses, see this page. However, it appears that vinegar isn't going to be useful if your goal is to kill bacteria.

It looks like hydrogen peroxide can be used to disinfect and kill at least some bacteria. Scroll to the bottom of this page for a bit more info. That page is primarily about health care settings, but I think it's still got some good info. Incidentally, contrary to what seemed to be believed when I was a kid, you shouldn't use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect wounds. It apparently will mostly just irritate the tissue.

*Or rather, I wouldn't personally do this because I'm a sober alcoholic who avoids any alcohol even in food, although I've actually made decent penne alla vodka by just ommitting the vodka and adjusting some ratios.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:46 PM on October 10, 2015

Everclear is useful as a solvent, however the resulting odor is rather unpleasant and tends to linger.
posted by bird internet at 1:26 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Star San is a no-rinse sanitizer used mostly by home brewers. Works great for all-purpose sanitation.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:48 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you bake? Supposedly, vodka makes an easy, flaky pie crust. I have not tried it.
posted by aws17576 at 3:16 PM on October 10, 2015

You're making too big a thing of this. Most viruses do not survive very long on surfaces outside the body. And all that research is about viruses on surfaces where no attempt was made at cleaning. If you just rinse and wipe the thermometer, using a little soap and warm water, nobody's going to catch a cold from it.
posted by beagle at 3:45 PM on October 10, 2015 [9 favorites]

Apparently you really need at least above 100 proof to do a reasonable job of killing bacteria and inactivating viruses. Bacardi 151 should do the trick if you don't have any Everclear handy. Or I mean, you could just use detergent and water, since that also does a great job of dislodging and killing microbes and viruses.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:20 AM on October 11, 2015

I understand cleaning the thermometer, soap and water will do that. And then let it dry well.
But why are you sterilising your kitchen? Normal cleaning is plenty sufficient, unless you regularly cut up raw meat directly on the counter tops.
I have to "sterilise" my kitchen as I make cosmetics at home and rubbing alcohol is what we use. But not just the counters, all surfaces. Takes me an hour to prepare. But definitely not recommended for every day. It's bad to live in sterile environments and you would compromise your immune system.
posted by Madpiano at 7:48 AM on October 11, 2015

Oh, Madpiano's comment reminded me, another drawback to using high-proof alcohol to sterilize things in the kitchen, whether it's Everclear or rubbing alcohol, is that it is much more flammable than whiskey.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:11 AM on October 12, 2015

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