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What is Rubbing Alcohol?

Niki Acker
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Rubbing alcohol is a liquid used topically for disinfection or to soothe, cool, or warm the skin. It is made from 70 to 95% ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, along with water, acetone, methyl isobutyl ketone, and additives to give it a bitter taste. Some products include perfumes or artificial coloring.

A type of denatured alcohol, it has been rendered unfit for human consumption by the addition of poisons and bitter-tasting ingredients. Denaturing allows an alcohol product to be sold without the taxes placed on drinking alcohol, so that it can be used for its other benefits. Alcohol in this form can cause permanent injury or death if consumed.

Rubbing alcohol is most often used to disinfect medical instruments and human skin, especially in the case of minor injury or to prepare the skin for an injection. If left on the skin for two minutes, 70% ethyl alcohol will reduce the bacterial count by 5%. As an antiseptic, it is ineffective against spores and fair against viruses and fungi, though it does well against vegetative bacteria.

This type of alcohol is also a mild rubifacient or counterirritant, which means that it creates inflammation in one area in order to reduce inflammation in another. It can have a cooling effect is left to evaporate off the skin, but it has a warming effect when rubbed in. People should be careful when applying rubbing alcohol to the skin, as it can be toxic if used over large parts of the body. It can be poisonous if inhaled, so people should only use it in well ventilated areas.

In addition to the standard version, isopropyl rubbing alcohol, which consists mainly of isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol, is also available. the two should not be confused, however, as isopropyl alcohol is mainly used as a solvent or cleaner, rather than for therapeutic uses.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a The Health Board editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon112579 — On Sep 20, 2010

You can purchase a gallon of 99 percent isopropyl alcohol for only $20.50 online.

Yeah I know it's a pet website, but it's in their animal health section. Much cheaper than finding it in a pharmacy.

By Alchemy — On Jun 22, 2010

As a curious side note, flex fuel vehicles can use 99% denatured or isopropyl alcohol as a fuel additive. Seventy percent solution denatured alcohol will probably work, but your vehicle will run horribly because of the water content. I do not recommend running denatured alcohol in non flex-fuel vehicles because alcohol degrades rubber.

Adding 99% denatured alcohol to gasoline would be nearly the same as running gasohol in a vehicle. Flex fuel vehicles in the U.S. can run up to an 85%/15% solution of anhydrous ethanol to gasoline. Some European and South American vehicles can run even higher percentages.

The purpose of adding denatured alcohol or ethanol to gasoline is to oxygenate fuel. Although oxygenated fuel will sacrifice fuel economy, the vehicle will burn fuel cleaner.

By surreallife — On Mar 11, 2009

Rubbing alcohol is great for disinfecting medical instruments or for cleaning skin that is being prepared for injection.

However, rubbing alcohol also has a drying effect on the skin, and can even cause damage, therefore it should not be used on wounds.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a The Health Board editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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