Rubbing alcohol is made from coal gas and water. In the United States, manufacturers also use sulfuric acid in the manufacturing process, and tiny amounts of sulfuric acid remain in the finished product.
Rubbing alcohol dissolves the DNA of bacteria and human skin cells.
Since rubbing alcohol kills skin cells in the lining of pores, it can cause pores to become clogged with dead skin.
Rubbing alcohol usually creates new blemishes rather than eliminates old ones.
Astringents, toners, face scrubs, and facial masks sometimes contain rubbing alcohol. Don’t buy them if they do.
Rubbing alcohol is the form of alcohol known to chemistry as isopropyl alcohol3. It is manufactured by combining a form of coal gas, known as propene, with water. In Europe, the only ingredients used to make rubbing alcohol are the coal gas and water. In the United States, most manufacturers accelerate the process by adding sulfuric acid to the reaction vessel. Tiny traces of sulfuric acid remain in the isopropyl acid product.
The process of making isopropyl alcohol forms a kind of mixture known as an azeotrope. There will always be some water that does not combine with propene, so there is some water in isopropyl alcohol that can’t be boiled off or distilled away. It is possible to dilute isopropyl alcohol with more water, but it not possible to make it purer than it is at the end of the manufacturing process (except by use of vacuum treatments or extreme pressure).
What Does Rubbing Alcohol Do?
Isopropyl alcohol is known as “rubbing” alcohol because it can be used to rub glue, grease, and paint off dirty surfaces. Rubbing alcohol dissolves fats4. It also dissolves DNA, and is used in testing labs to remove the DNA from tissue samples for genetic analysis.
When you rub isopropyl alcohol on your skin, you quickly remove any fats in makeup and cold cream that may be on your skin. Up until the 1970’s, there actually were reasons you would use rubbing alcohol in skin care:
Many children got a smear of Vicks Vaporub or a similar camphor oil treatment on their necks and chests when they got chest colds. Soap would not get the chest rub off the skin, but rubbing alcohol would.
Television personalities working under harsh lights wore heavy makeup. Cold cream could remove the makeup, but then rubbing alcohol would be needed to remove the cold cream available in that time.
Camay, Palmolive, Knight’s Castille, and Imperial Leather soaps were used to treat dry skin. Containing 6 to 7 times more fat than other soaps, they often left a thick residue on the skin that most people would remove with rubbing alcohol.
Ironically, the use of rubbing alcohol would cause drying of the skin that the super-fatted soaps were used to treat. Nowadays, cold remedies, makeup, and soaps are all lighter—but the use of rubbing alcohol to treat acne can still cause acne.
How Rubbing Alcohol Can Cause Acne
Every acne blemish begins as a condition known as follicular hyperkeratosis. All follicular hyperkeratosis does is to trigger overproduction of skin cells in the “neck” of a skin pore lying over an oil-producing sebaceous gland. The skin inside the pore sheds cells faster than the pore can expel them, and oil gets trapped beneath the clumps of dead skin5. Acne bacteria also accumulate underneath the dead skin cells, and the immune system tries to destroy them by releasing inflammatory chemicals—which also damage the skin.
Rubbing alcohol increases hyperkeratosis6. It destroys DNA in cells lining the pore. They die and flake off into the pore. If the pore is not exfoliated, it becomes clogged, and acne follows. Isopropyl alcohol is not the only substance that does this. Skin care products that contain isopropyl myristate, isopropyl palmitate, isopropyl isostearate, decyl oleate, neopentanoate, petrolatum, mineral oil, cocoa butter, paraffin, menthol, or sodium lauryl sulfate can have the same effect on skin. (Skin care researchers have found that cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol can cause acne in rabbits, but there is no indication that they can cause acne in people.) They initially leave the skin feeling cleaner, but by killing cells in the lining of pores, blemishes may follow a few days later.
Astringents and toners that include alcohol or menthol. They will just leave your skin redder, dryer, and more blemish-prone.
“Witch hazel distillate,” which is mostly alcohol. A water-based extract of witch hazel can tone your skin and stop oozing, but an alcohol-based extract of witch hazel can dry out and irritate your skin.
Purifying mud masks that contain either alcohol or witch hazel extract. The mud soothes your skin and the alcohol irritates it—leaving you wanting more and more of the product.
Spray-on sunscreens that contain alcohol. These products may stop sunburn, but the won’t stop flaking and peeling.
The products you use in acne care should be alcohol-free, but there are times it makes sense to use rubbing alcohol as a skin treatment.
Rubbing alcohol is better for preventing infections on cuts and scrapes than iodine or a combination of iodine and rubbing alcohol.
Rubbing alcohol is used to sterilize the skin before acupuncture. In an increasing number of acupuncture clinics in both China and the United States, however, strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more and more frequently reported in acupuncture patients.
Make sure that your acupuncturist changes sheets on the treatment table and keeps other surfaces clean.
There just is no place for rubbing alcohol in treating acne. But it is still a useful treatment for cuts and scrapes. For effective acne care, check out the products offered by Exposed Skin Care.
Reichel M, Heisig P, Kohlmann T, Kampf G. Alcohols for skin antisepsis at clinically relevant skin sites. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2009 Nov;53(11):4778-82.
National Research Council (US) Committee on Toxicology. Emergency and Continuous Exposure Limits for Selected Airborne Contaminants: Volume 2. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1984. ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL.
Ingólfsson HI, Andersen OS. Alcohol’s effects on lipid bilayer properties. Biophys J. 2011 Aug 17;101(4):847-55.
Nguyen SH, Dang TP, Maibach HI. Comedogenicity in rabbit: some cosmetic ingredients/vehicles. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2007;26(4):287-92.
George RM, Sridharan R. Factors Aggravating or Precipitating Acne in Indian Adults: A Hospital-Based Study of 110 Cases. Indian J Dermatol. 2018 Jul-Aug;63(4):328-331.
org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Skin care for acne-prone skin. 2013 Jan 16.
McDonnell G, Russell AD. Antiseptics and disinfectants: activity, action, and resistance. Clin Microbiol Rev. 1999 Jan;12(1):147-79. Erratum in: Clin Microbiol Rev 2001 Jan;14(1):227.