Rubbing alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are often used interchangeably. However, they aren’t technically the same thing, though they are closely related. Let’s take a look at what exactly each type of alcohol is, and how they work together.
What is Isopropyl Alcohol?
Also referred to as IPA or isopropanol, this type of alcohol is a very common, multi-purpose chemical with a strong, characteristic scent. It can be synthesized very easily through the reaction of sulfuric acid and propylene, along with a subsequent reaction with water (hydrolysis).
IPA is one of the most widely used compounds in many industries because it is such a powerful disinfectant—it can easily denature a multitude of bacteria and viruses. Due to its ability to fully combine with water, it can be diluted to the desired concentration and used in products such as:
- paint strippers
- cleaning products
What is Rubbing Alcohol?
Rubbing alcohol is a diluted version of one of two types of alcohol: ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, which is the alcoholic aspect of alcoholic beverages, or isopropanol, a primary disinfecting agent. Most commonly, it is made with 70% IPA. The only other additive to rubbing alcohol is water, which ensures that the product will be effective. It is used for things like:
- disinfecting bug bites
- cleaning small cuts or scrapes
- disinfecting electronics like keyboards or phones
- deodorizing clothes or shoes
- disinfecting and cleaning surfaces
- defrosting car windows
- cleaning stainless steel or mirrors—it dries streak-free!
This is only a fraction of what rubbing alcohol can be used for. Its dilution makes it much safer for common uses than pure isopropyl alcohol.
Why is it Called ‘Rubbing’ Alcohol?
This name was first introduced in the 1920s, when rubbing alcohol was quite literally used for rubbing into the skin—it served as a liniment, or medicinal liquid, during massages. Another reason for its peculiar name comes from the time that it became popular. This was during Prohibition, so it was important that drinking and non-drinking alcohol be distinguished. Rubbing alcohol is unsafe to drink, even if it contains ethanol—the type of ethanol used is denatured, which renders it toxic for ingestion.
When to Use Rubbing vs. Isopropyl Alcohol
Although it might seem like the distinction between these two alcohols is minor, since IPA is the main ingredient in rubbing alcohol, it is important to remember that rubbing alcohol is diluted to make it safer for common uses and can be used for cleaning surfaces or objects. Isopropanol, on the other hand, is the key ingredient in many sanitizing or cleaning products and cannot be purchased as easily as rubbing alcohol. When in doubt, choose the safer of the two.