There is much debate among the vinyl community around the use of alcohol to clean vinyl records. Isopropyl alcohol, in particular, is popular with many collectors as a key ingredient in homemade record cleaning solutions. But is it safe? Some collectors swear by it, others warn of potential hazards. To help shed some light on the topic, we’ve done a little further digging.
Many cleaning product manufacturers err on the side of caution when considering alcohol as a record cleaning ingredient. In our previous interview with GrooveWasher founder, Steve Chase, he explained why the creator of the original 1970’s Discwasher, Dr Bruce Maier stayed clear of high amounts of iso alcohol when cleaning vinyl records. “Dr Maier cautioned against fluids with high concentrations of iso alcohol,” explains Steve. “He stated that iso alcohol can remove plasticizers from the vinyl and make the groove brittle. Our G2 Fluid does not contain any iso alcohol. Some experts take pride in using high iso alcohol to clean their records. But it is not an effective hard surface cleaner. It evaporates too quickly to remove the contaminants. Try cleaning any hard surface with alcohol and you will see how poor a cleaner it is. The grime dries back onto the surface before you can wipe it away.”
GrooveWasher’s concerns about isopropyl alcohol are also shared by the manufacturers behind the popular Disc Doctor, who state on their website that iso alcohol can “…dissolve shellac surfaces, and cause the leaching of plasticizers from synthetic plastic pressings making them brittle and subject to excess wear.” They don’t rule out alcohol entirely, however, adding, “Methyl alcohol should also be avoided; undenatured ethyl alcohol concentrations must be kept to a minimum.”
Knowing that GrooveWasher contains a small amount of alcohol (just not iso alcohol), I asked Steve Chase to elaborate further. “The alcohol version we use dries a little slower than iso, with almost the same solvent and miscibility characteristics”, he explains. “The first concern with a cleaning solution is to do no harm. You can clean a delicate hard surface, like a vinyl record or shellac finished wood table, with a high alcohol glass cleaner, but you may destroy the object in the process. Why try to kill a fly with a hammer?! As an abundance of caution, one should have a bias toward a less powerful cleaning solution that may require multiple cleanings, instead of a powerful, possibly damaging fluid.”
Despite concern from many record cleaning manufacturers, there are plenty of advocates for the use of iso alcohol. One commentator from the now defunct website record-cleaner.co.uk wrote with conviction, claiming that isopropyl alcohol is safe. In short, “Nearly all records are made from Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride) which has excellent solvent resistant properties. The chance of isopropanol in any dilution causing a reaction is theoretically impossible.”
Our main commentator, Steve is aware of these arguments and was quick to solidify their position. “One argument I’ve seen on the audio forums is the claim that high alcohol doesn’t harm the PVC vinyl that makes up the bulk of the ingredients in record vinyl. However, just because PVC vinyl is resistant to iso doesn’t mean we should select it as a cleaning ingredient. The record may look clean but has the dirt dried back in the grooves?”
“When we experimented with the chemical families that Dr Maier used for his Discwasher record cleaning fluids, we found reaction tables for PVC vinyl, like this one. As you can see, isopropanol doesn’t react with PVC. Add acetic acid to it, however, and it melts PVC!”
“Given the choice, we decided not to use isopropanol. It smells like a hospital and dries too fast, from our experiments, compared to the alternatives. We use a small amount of alcohol (non-iso) in our G2 Fluid and SC1 Stylus Cleaning Fluid, mainly as a blending agent. All of the ingredients in our fluids are water-loving and blend quickly. The combination works well.”
The smell of an alcohol-rich cleaner is rather unpleasant, as I was reminded when recently digging out an old container of Clear Groove, which has a much higher quantity of alcohol than GrooveWasher.
The most alarming claim about iso-alcohol is that it can remove the “protective coating” of the groove. So while they might sound better at first, there is reportedly a risk that repeated use can irreversibly damage the groove.
However, when I dug deeper to find information on this supposed protective layer, I couldn’t find much information, anything I did find seemed to suggest that it’s a myth. There’s a good chance, I would say, that what they really mean here is the removal or leaching of plasticizers, as per Dr Bruce Maier’s research. Regardless, fears of iso alcohol’s effect on the vinyl record surface are fairly widespread, but despite these concerns, the internet (and the market for that matter) is awash with cleaning solutions that contain iso alcohol, often in quite high quantities.
Steve Chase added further comment on DIY cleaning, suggesting that while it might be safe when used sparingly, it’s not GrooveWasher’s preferred or recommended approach. “Isopropyl alcohol, in low concentration to total volume, appears to be safe to use on vinyl records”, explains Steve. “We don’t like it. But it is very popular with DIY record cleaning fluid makers. Some of the recipes we have seen are pretty scary. Again, we choose to use an abundance of caution with our records.”
So is it ok to clean vinyl records with alcohol?
The debate surrounding alcohol and vinyl records will continue for many years to come. I would love to be able to give you a decisive conclusion to this article, but the truth is, it’s difficult to draw a precise resolution one way or another.
I would say that while there seems to be a solid argument for isopropyl alcohol in lower quantities, erring on the side of caution seems sensible in the longer term. I would echo Steve’s preference for a moderate approach that might require you to repeat the process, rather than a heavy-handed approach that may pose some risk.
There appears to be some danger should the iso alcohol mix with any acetic acid, and given that acetic acid is found in vinegar, that alone presents some opportunity for problems (believe it or not there are some folk out there who will advocate cleaning vinyl records with vinegar. Crazy).
If you do decide to use isopropyl alcohol as part of your cleaning process, I would at least recommend rinsing the record after with distilled water to wash away any remnants left behind. In the case of shellac records, of course, alcohol-based record cleaners are a huge no-no.