Rubbing alcohol uses: How to use it, safety, and what to avoid (2022)

Rubbing alcohol is a common household chemical. It has several potential uses in personal care, as well as in general household cleaning.

However, the incorrect use of rubbing alcohol can cause serious side effects, including skin irritation and poisoning.

In this article, we list some common uses for rubbing alcohol. We also outline some situations in which a person should avoid using this chemical.

Common uses for rubbing alcohol include:

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People can use tweezers to remove a tick carefully from the skin. Following its removal, they can use rubbing alcohol to disinfect the bite. They should apply rubbing alcohol to a cotton swab and dab it onto the area where the tick had attached itself.

Learn more about tick removal here.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), people can use rubbing alcohol to help clean the skin around new ear piercings. To do this, a person should dip a cotton ball or pad into the rubbing alcohol. They should then gently wipe it around the piercing on the front and back of the ear.

People should clean the piercing twice a day to help prevent bacterial infections and scabbing.

It is important to note that some experts disagree with this advice, recommending that people avoid using rubbing alcohol because it might slow the healing process.

Rubbing alcohol can help kill odor-causing bacteria. A person can apply rubbing alcohol under the armpits to help eliminate body odors.

However, they should avoid applying rubbing alcohol soon after shaving, as this will cause stinging.

Shoes can develop a strong odor, particularly if a person wears them while exercising or doing other physical activity. Spraying the insoles of the shoes with rubbing alcohol can help eliminate odor-causing bacteria.

A person should fill a spray bottle with rubbing alcohol and use this to spray the insides of the shoes. Leaving the shoes in the sun will help dry them out.

It is possible to make a room deodorizer by pouring rubbing alcohol into a spray bottle and adding a few drops of an essential oil. A person can then spray the mixture around the room to help mask unpleasant odors.

By mixing water and rubbing alcohol, a person can create a reusable and malleable homemade ice pack. They can follow these steps:

  • Fill a sealable freezer bag with 2 cups of water and 1 cup of 70% rubbing alcohol.
  • Push as much air out as possible, and seal the bag.
  • Place the filled bag inside another freezer bag, pushing out as much air as possible before sealing it.
  • Freeze for several hours.

Once the ice pack is ready, people can apply it to sore muscles or joints to relieve pain and inflammation.

Rubbing alcohol can help clean and disinfect hard surfaces. It is effective against most, but not all, pathogens.

The main ingredient in rubbing alcohol is isopropyl alcohol (IA). Most rubbing alcohols contain about 70% IA, but the amount can range from 60% to 99%, depending on the product.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol solutions are most effective at concentrations of 60–90%. People should avoid using diluted solutions that have a concentration of 50% or below, as these will be less effective in killing pathogens.

Rubbing alcohol can also help disinfect household items, such as bathroom or kitchen sponges or cleaning cloths.

A person should pour some rubbing alcohol onto the sponge or cloth and let it soak for several minutes or hours inside a sealable container.

Alcohol evaporates quickly and can kill pathogens on phones, laptops, tablets, and other devices. It is best to use a rubbing alcohol with 99% IA for electronics.

A person should apply a small amount of the rubbing alcohol to a paper towel or cloth and gently wipe it across the electronic device.

This chemical can also help remove water from an electronic device if a person accidentally drops it into water or spills some water on it. If the device was switched off at the time, removing water with the rubbing alcohol should recover it.

Jewelry can collect a lot of grime and bacteria through frequent wearing. Cleaning the jewelry with rubbing alcohol will make it more hygienic to wear.

People should apply the rubbing alcohol to a soft cloth or cotton swab. They can then rub this against the jewelry to help remove surface dirt and bacteria.

A 2018 review investigated the use of different aromatherapy ingredients for the treatment of nausea and vomiting following surgery. Rubbing alcohol was one of several aromatherapy ingredients that the researchers tested.

They found that inhaling rubbing alcohol vapor rapidly alleviated nausea and reduced the need for antinausea drugs following surgery. However, they noted that the studies that the review included were of low-to-medium quality. As such, further studies are necessary to confirm the findings.

A person should talk to their doctor before inhaling rubbing alcohol vapor to alleviate nausea. Inhaling too much vapor can cause serious side effects in both children and adults.

A person should not use rubbing alcohol for the following purposes:

1. Bathing

People should avoid adding rubbing alcohol to their bathwater. Prolonged exposure to rubbing alcohol can cause the skin to absorb the alcohol, which can lead to toxicity in both children and adults.

2. Reducing a fever

Rubbing alcohol can create a cooling sensation on the skin, but it will not lower a person’s core body temperature. As such, it is not an effective treatment for fever.

In fact, inhaling large quantities of rubbing alcohol can lead to additional health problems, such as:

  • alcohol poisoning
  • cardiac problems
  • neurological problems
  • coma

3. Treating acne

Rubbing alcohol causes drying of the skin. According to the AAD, dry skin can make acne appear worse. It can also increase the frequency and severity of acne breakouts. People should, therefore, avoid using rubbing alcohol as a treatment for acne.

Anyone who is concerned about acne should speak to a doctor or dermatologist for advice on effective acne treatments.

4. Treating lice

A person should not use rubbing alcohol to treat lice. Rubbing alcohol can kill lice, but it can also cause adverse reactions on the scalp.

A person who has lice can ask their doctor or pharmacist for advice on effective lice treatments.

5. Sterilizing medical and surgical equipment

According to the CDC, rubbing alcohol is not suitable for sterilizing medical and surgical equipment because it does not effectively kill bacterial spores.

A bacterial spore is a protective layer that forms around the DNA of certain bacteria. It allows the bacteria to lie dormant until environmental conditions become more favorable for their growth.

6. Internal use

According to the National Capital Poison Center, drinking a small amount of rubbing alcohol typically causes few symptoms. However, drinking a significant amount can cause poisoning and serious illness.

Some potential effects of drinking rubbing alcohol include:

  • sedation
  • slurred speech
  • unsteadiness when walking
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • bleeding in the stomach and intestines
  • dehydration
  • low blood pressure
  • shock
  • coma

If an adult or child accidentally swallows rubbing alcohol, they or their caregiver should contact Poison Control immediately on 800-222-1222. If symptoms are present, a person should phone 911 for emergency medical treatment.

Rubbing alcohol has several potential uses for personal care and household cleaning. These uses include cleaning bites and piercings, eliminating odors, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and items within the home.

People should avoid inhaling large quantities of rubbing alcohol vapor, as this can have serious side effects. They should also avoid long-term use of rubbing alcohol on the skin.

Drinking rubbing alcohol can cause poisoning and serious illness. A person should phone a poison control center or 911 immediately if they or their child accidentally swallows rubbing alcohol.

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