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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

What Are the Ingredients in Rubbing Alcohol?

By January 16, 2014

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Isopropyl AlcoholOne of the types of alcohol you can buy over the counter is rubbing alcohol, which is used for disinfection and may be applied to the skin to produce a cooling effect. Do you know the chemical composition of rubbing alcohol? It is a mixture of denatured alcohol, water and agents added to make the alcohol unpalatable to drink and sometimes colorants. There are two common types of rubbing alcohol.

Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol

Most rubbing alcohol is made from isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol in water. It is common to find isopropyl rubbing alcohol at concentrations from 68% alcohol in water up to 99% alcohol in water. The 70% rubbing alcohol is highly effective as a disinfectant. Additives make this alcohol bitter-tasting, to try to prevent people from drinking it. Isopropyl alcohol is toxic, in part because the body metabolizes it into acetone. Drinking this alcohol can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, central nervous system depression, organ damage and potentially coma or death.

Ethyl Alcohol Rubbing Alcohol

The other type of rubbing alcohol consists of 97.5-100% denatured ethyl alcohol or ethanol with water. Ethyl alcohol naturally is less toxic than isopropyl alcohol. In fact, it is the alcohol that naturally occurs in wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages. However, the alcohol is denatured or made undrinkable in rubbing alcohol, both to control its use as an intoxicant and because the alcohol has not been purified to make it safe to drink. In fact, in the US, additives make it as toxic as isopropyl alcohol.

Rubbing Alcohol in the US

In the United States, rubbing alcohol made using ethanol must conform to Formula 23-H, which specifies it consists of 100 parts by volume of ethyl alcohol, 8 parts by volume of acetone (MSDS sheet) and 1.5 parts by volume of methyl isobutyl ketone (MSDS sheet). The remainder of the composition includes water and denaturants and may include colorants and perfume oils.

Rubbing alcohol made using isopropanol is regulated to contains at least 355 mg of sucrose octaacetate (MSDS sheet) and 1.40 mg of denatonium benzoate (MSDS sheet) per 100 ml volume. Isopropyl rubbing alcohol also contains water, stabilizer and may contain colorants.

Rubbing Alcohol Toxicity

Thus, all rubbing alcohol manufactured in the US is toxic to ingest, inhale or apply to your skin. In fact, if you read the product label, you'll see there is a warning against most of the common uses of rubbing alcohol.

All types of rubbing alcohol, regardless of their country of origin, are flammable. Formulations closer to 70% are less likely to catch fire than rubbing alcohol that contains a higher percentage of alcohol.

Rubbing Alcohol Projects

Chalk Chromatography with Rubbing Alcohol
Remove Ball Point Ink Stains with Rubbing Alcohol
Sharpie Pen Tie Dye
Handheld Fireball Project


January 9, 2012 at 11:09 am
(1) Christian says:

Nice blog post, thanks for breaking down the differences. I always wondered what was in the different types of alcohol you find at CVS and the like.

April 16, 2012 at 6:51 am
(2) Adonyx says:

The story of ethyl-alcohol travels an especially frustrating rabbit hole. Some of the first cars ran on ethanol, including the Ford Model-T (1908). The certainty of the developing automobile industry was contrasted by the uncertainty of a standardized auto fuel as technologies were developing in both alcohol & gasoline based fuels. The resolution of which yielded the modern formulation of modern “rubbing alcohol”.
The appeal of ethyl-alcohol as a fuel was that it was a safer, cleaner, accessible, easily rendered agricultural byproduct which, while having lower energy potential by volume than gasoline, had a much higher octane & more efficient and reliable combustion at higher RPM’s/compression. The fatal downside of ethyl-alcohol was that it was a difficult fuel to monopolize if you were a power-hungry old-money tyrant like say… John D. Rockefeller, founder of “Standard Oil” and owner of the oil & gas monopoly.
He just needed to make this pesky “ethanol” go away. The fact that this rival fuel was also a controversial mood altering beverage made his campaign for prohibition an easy sell.
The very year that Prohibition passed, Rockefeller’s Bayway facility conveniently introduced the world’s first petrochemical, ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL. It provided a suitable industrial substitute for ethanol and you couldn’t drink it because it was toxic, so… score.
After that I guess he got thirsty because he had a change of heart and campaigned to repeal Prohibition with the contingency that ethanol’s industrial formulations be so heavily regulated and watered down with those additives you mentioned, that it’s efficacy be reduced and it’s toxicity be INCREASED such that it didn’t threaten his new Isopropyl Alcohol cash-cow.
It’s a sick world.
You can still buy ethyl rubbing alcohol without the toxic additives, it’s just not marketed as a rubbing alcohol. It’s 95% pure ethanol. It’s sold at liquor stores and it’s cheap because nobody drinks it twice. It’s called EVERCLEAR.

April 16, 2012 at 7:02 am
(3) Adonyx says:

Wow, I really had to butcher that post to make my comment fit within the 2000 character limit.

It’s probably for the best, actually.

January 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm
(4) Digital_j says:

Thanks for your contribution Adonyx, I’m on a hunt for some unstabilized alcohol to spray for skin needles. I think I just found my lead. The history lesson was quite enlightening as well, thanks again.

May 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm
(5) Elaine says:

my vet told me to use rubbing alcohol and white vinegar 50/50 in my dog’s ears after a day in the lake …..I can find isopropyl alcohol at different strengths now I don’t know what to use….should I continue to look for rubbing alcohol?

January 27, 2014 at 12:59 pm
(6) Chuck Rogers says:

Can I use rubbing alcohol to extract the oils in peppers and still use the oil for consumption, considering the alcohol evaporates?

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