Can You Spray Alcohol on Plants?

There are better, cheaper, and more sustainable alternatives.

Spray bottle spraying liquid on cherry leaves with aphids

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Alcohol can be an effective insecticide. It can also be an effective herbicide. But it's an indiscriminate herbicide, killing both weeds and any plants that you want to keep alive.

There are ample alternative natural insecticides that you can spray directly on plants, most of which are safer and, in practice, more effective. There are also other, more sustainable natural herbicides than alcohol. But if you're going to use alcohol, it's important to know how to apply it to plants—which kinds, what amounts, and which methods—and, more importantly, what not to do.

How Not to Use Alcohol on Plants

The most common types of alcohol are ethanol, methanol, and isopropyl (or rubbing) alcohol, and each comes with its own do's and don'ts.

Methanol

Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol. It is commercially available as racing fuel and for other applications. Some studies have found that methanol stimulates plant growth, especially C3 grasses like wheat, fescue, rye, bluegrass, and many others, yet a general review of the literature finds either that it is ineffective or that it actually inhibits plant growth.

At high concentrations, methanol can be an effective herbicide, but it's a pricey item to use just to kill plants. It's also an indiscriminate killer, so if you want to kill all the plants in a single area, solarizing your soil is a far less expensive and far less flammable method.

Ethanol

Like methanol, ethanol has been found to stunt plant growth. One practical use is to add a diluted solution of ethanol to paperwhites or other daffodils to slow their growth so that they last longer as forced bulbs. Research conducted by Cornell University found that solutions of between 4% and 6% ethanol prevented paperwhites from growing too tall or floppy. But be warned: the same study found that solutions with ethanol content greater than 10% killed the plants.

Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) is the most commonly recommended, most practical (or, rather, least impractical), and least expensive alcohol to use on plants. Rubbing alcohol is usually 70% alcohol, so it needs to be heavily diluted to be used correctly. As with ethanol, any stronger solution than 4% is like to do more harm than good.

As a rule of thumb, use a solution of at least 20 parts water to one part rubbing alcohol, which yields a solution of 3.33% rubbing alcohol. Used correctly, it can be an effective insecticide. Unfortunately, it's also an effective but indiscriminate herbicide, so use carefully, if at all.

Using Rubbing Alcohol on Plants

Isopropyl alcohol can kill mealybugs, aphids, spider mites, thrips, slugs, snails, or whiteflies by melting their protective wax coatings or dry out their soft bodies. Eggs and pupae are likely to not be affected, so you will need to reapply your solution once new predators emerge.

Once you have created a less-than-4% alcohol solution, test it on your plants first. Apply a small solution of rubbing alcohol on a plant's leaves, then wait at least a day. Alcohol acts as a desiccant, so you may find burn marks, curled or withered leaves, or other negative reactions.

If your plants seem unharmed by spraying alcohol for pest control, use in moderation. Over-spraying an alcohol solution so that it runs off leaves and into the soil can turn your insecticide into an herbicide. Plants absorb alcohol via their roots, which can cause severe dehydration and kill the plants.

To be safe, use a cotton swab to apply the solution directly onto the mealybugs or their eggs, rather than using a spray, which will coat the leaves as well and potentially damage them. Of course, using a cotton swab to apply alcohol to each individual pest is probably a waste of your time when easier, safer, and more effective alternatives are available.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can I use alcoholic beverages in the garden?

    Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol, but they can also contain sugars and other organic matter that can foster the growth of bacteria and fungi that can kill plants. Thus, it is not recommended to use alcoholic drinks on plants.

  • Are there other uses for alcohol in the garden?

    You can use rubbing alcohol to disinfect your garden tools. Soak the ends of your trowels, shovels, or other garden tools in a 2-3% solution of rubbing alcohol. Rinse thoroughly with clear water before using again in the garden.

View Article Sources
  1. John A. Manthey. “The Role of Methanol in Promoting Plant Growth: A Current Evaluation” HortScience 31:7 (December 1996), 1092–1096. DOI: https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI.31.7.1092; daSilva, Ueveton Pimentel, et al. “Allelopathic activity and chemical constituents of extracts from roots of Euphorbia heterophylla L.” Natural Product Research 33:18 (2019), 2681–2684. DOI: 10.1080/14786419.2018.1460829; McGiffen, Jr., Milton E., and; Mu, Jun, Tohru Uehara, and Takeshi Furuno. “Regulation effect of Phyllostachys pubescens methanol extractives on growth of seed plants.” Journal of Wood Science 52 (2006), 367–371. DOI 10.1007/s10086-005-0768-x.