Green cleaning tips: using denatured alcohol (methylated spirits)

First published December 2009, last updated December 2012

Supermarket cleaning aisles are crammed with all sorts of fancy cleaners claiming to do this, that or the other. Some of these cleaners contain highly toxic chemicals that are not only unnecessary, but quite damaging to the environment.

Our cleaning tasks don’t really need such complex chemical cocktails.

Thankfully, many green cleaners have become available as commercial preparations in recent years. Some of these products are based on materials commonly found around the home such as baking soda, borax, vinegar and eucalyptus oil; all of which I’ve written about in the past.

Here’s another – methylated spirits.

What is methylated spirits?

Also known as denatured alcohol, methylated spirits is for the most part just plain alcohol (ethyl alcohol). Yes, the alcohol that is in your favorite tipple! Around 90% of methylated spirits is ethanol; so it’s incredibly strong. But before anyone gets ideas, read on.

The main additive is 10% methanol, which is highly toxic, but it may also include isopropyl alcohol, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone or other substances. These substances are added specifically to deter people from drinking it. Without it, you can imagine the social implications of having such cheap hooch readily available to all ages.

The difference between the two alcohols is ethanol is made from grains, fruits and vegetables and methanol usually from wood stock.

WARNING: Do not attempt to drink methylated spirits. Methanol can cause blindness, brain damage and death. While some people do drink it regularly, they are usually severely impaired after a while and others have died after their first try. Drinking as little as 10 ml of methanol (two teaspoons) can cause blindness.

Also note that white spirit is not methylated spirits. White spirit is derived from paraffin, a by-product of crude oil processing.

Uses for methylated spirits.

– It’s great as a glass cleaner! If you’re going to use it in hot conditions, dilute it with water.

– In fuel stoves – methylated spirits burns very cleanly; a little too cleanly in fact as it can be hard to see the flame.

– Methylated spirits can be used to remove ink stains from upholstery or clothes

– Remove permanent marker from pvc plastics.

– As a solvent for thinning paint

– For cleaning paint brushes as an alternative to fossil fuel based solvents

– As a general metal cleaner

– For removing stickers and sticker residue from car windscreens

– To clean bike disc brakes

– Cleaning electronics

– Cleaning CD/DVD laser lenses (use a cotton bud/q- tip)

Note: always spot test when using methylated spirits/denatured alcohol on fabrics and plastics and take particular care when using on lacquered surfaces. Avoid using on wood items.

If you’re going to buy denatured alcohol/methylated spirits, probably the “greenest” choice is a brand that contains methanol as the only extra ingredient rather than some of the other more exotic substances I mentioned above.

Here’s an interesting fact I picked up on Wikipedia: In the United States, small amounts of denatured alcohol are used in many consumer products – and not just cleaning items. It will be listed as “SD alcohol XX”, where SD stands for “specifically denatured” and XX is the formula used in the denaturing process.

To get a better idea of what is used in a methylated spirits brand, search for an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) that will show what the formula is.