What is Rubbing Alcohol?
Isopropanol is most commonly found in rubbing alcohol, a solution typically containing about 70% isopropanol and 30% water. Isopropanol (or isopropyl alcohol) is a clear, colorless liquid with a slightly fruity odor and bitter taste. It is used in a wide variety of commercially available products such as cosmetics, lotions, aftershaves, cleaners, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, antifreezes, solvents, inks, and pharmaceuticals.
Isopropanol ingestion is the most common toxic alcohol ingestion reported to Poison Control Centers in the United States each year. Although most isopropanol exposures are unintentional and occur in young children less than 6 years of age, more than 4,000 cases of intentional drinking rubbing alcohol were reported in 2009 alone.
In the 1970s and ’80s, parents stuck bright green mad-faced “Mr. Yuk” stickers on poisonous household items—including rubbing alcohol—to warn vulnerable children and adults against consuming or inhaling the toxin. The poison-awareness stickers eventually proved to be ineffective with kids, but the visual is still in many people’s minds: rubbing alcohol is a poison.
Individuals with chronic alcohol use disorder, however, probably aren’t thinking about those poison awareness stickers. Those struggling with alcoholism or addiction might see that rubbing alcohol has “alcohol” in its title, know that it’s cheaper than fermented or distilled ethanol alcohol, it’s widely available over-the-counter (and under-the-counter, as many people store it under kitchen and bathroom sinks, particularly when there’s no risk of small children accidentally ingesting it), and drinking enough of it can lead to intoxication.
The side effects of rubbing alcohol poisoning mirror those of a drunk person, however, it’s not even close to being the same alcohol you purchase at liquor stores. This substance is poison. Drinking rubbing alcohol even when is just a small amount can result in fatal consequences.
Why do People Drink Rubbing Alcohol?
Rubbing alcohol is consumed because it is much stronger than ethanol (the intoxicating agent produced by sugar fermentation and distillation) which is found in most common alcoholic beverages. People drink rubbing alcohol to become intoxicated, or in some cases to harm themselves. People suffering from alcoholism may turn to stronger substances such as rubbing alcohol to reach a certain level of intoxication.
Rubbing alcohol is sometimes substituted for ethanol due to its much lower cost and widespread availability. For example, a 16-ounce bottle of rubbing alcohol costs little more than one dollar and can be purchased pretty much any time of the day at a 24-hour drug store. Rubbing alcohol is also more potent than ethanol and is very quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. But these same characteristics that allow you to get more drunk more quickly are also responsible for the extreme risks and dangers associated with drinking rubbing alcohol.
The Risks and Dangers of Drinking Rubbing Alcohol
Drinking rubbing alcohol is much more dangerous compared to drinking ethanol. Isopropanol is more intoxicating than ethanol at comparable concentrations and is more likely to produce impaired consciousness (such as slurred speech, stumbling, and sedation), decreased body heat production, dangerously low blood pressure, and even cardiopulmonary collapse.
Rubbing alcohol is rapidly absorbed by the body, with blood levels peaking between 30 minutes and 3 hours after ingestion. Due to the chemical makeup of rubbing alcohol, it is metabolized much differently than ethanol, causing the body to become overwhelmed by toxins. Essentially, rubbing alcohol is broken down into acetone, the toxic chemical found in nail polish remover.
Drinking rubbing alcohol: acetone is a gastrointestinal irritant that can cause the following digestive tract issues:
- Bleeding in the stomach and intestines
- Bladder rupture
- Abdominal pain
- Vomiting blood
Acetone also triggers severe depression of the central nervous system. This can result in the following dangerous conditions:
Drinking rubbing alcohol is very dangerous in any quantity. Massive ingestion is especially risky and can cause depressed cardiovascular function, internal bleeding, organ damage, shock, and even death.
Ethyl alcohol, widely known as ethanol, grain alcohol, or drinking alcohol, is found in alcoholic beverages. It’s colorless, flammable, and—when denatured (think: chemicals added to discourage recreational consumption)—can be used as a fuel additive or topical antiseptic. Ethanol is the scientific name for the intoxicating agent produced when sugar is fermented by yeast. Even though you can drink ethanol when diluted, it’s not completely foolproof.
According to the Alcohol Content Database, alcoholic beverages have the following concentration of alcohol:
- Beer: 3-10 percent
- Wine: 8-14 percent
- Fortified wine: 16-22 percent
- Liqueurs: 15-25 percent
- Hard liquor: 40 percent on up
In contrast, store-bought rubbing alcohol is 70 percent isopropyl alcohol, or 140-proof when measured in ethanol terms. It’s metabolized differently, causing the body to become overwhelmed by the toxins.
Can You Die From Drinking Rubbing Alcohol?
For someone who wants to get drunk as fast as possible, yes, isopropyl alcohol will do the trick. According to the NCBI, “nearly 80 percent is absorbed into the bloodstream within 30 minutes of ingestion.” The effects kick in rapidly.
Odds are high that the individual won’t only get drunk on this dangerously toxic beverage, they’ll blackout and possibly even die.
The approximate lethal dose of 90 to 100 percent isopropanol for human adults is only 250 milliliters or about 8 ounces. Eight ounces. To put it in perspective: the average shot glass is 1.5 ounces. A can of Coke is 12 ounces. Ingesting only eight ounces of rubbing alcohol can kill you.
If a person drinks even a small amount and has any of the above-mentioned side effects, call 911—medical attention is necessary immediately. Do not induce vomiting. The caustic nature of rubbing alcohol can cause chemical burns to the esophagus. If rubbing alcohol was inhaled, move to fresh air. If the substance is on the skin, flush with water. Before calling 911, know the person’s age, weight, and condition; the name of the product; the time it was swallowed, and how much was swallowed.
Under no circumstances is rubbing alcohol intended for consumption. It is not a substitute for alcohol, wine, or beer. It is toxic. If you suspect someone has isopropyl alcohol poisoning—whether by accident or on purpose (desperation, experimentation)—call 911.
Treatment Options For Drinking Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol is not a substitute for liquor, wine, or beer, and under no circumstances is it intended for human consumption. If you suspect someone has consumed rubbing alcohol, whether by accident or on purpose, call 911 immediately. You can also contact the American Association of Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 to receive immediate, expert guidance from local poison control specialists serving your area.
If you or someone you know has considered drinking rubbing alcohol because of an ongoing struggle with alcohol addiction, please contact We Level Up California for the available treatment options that can help you on your path to recovery.
Reclaim Your Life From Alcoholism
Alcoholism is a serious disease that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up California rehab institute can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from Alcoholism with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
 Ashurst, J.V., & Nappe, T.M. (2019). Isopropanol Toxicity. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing
 Slaughter, R.J., Mason, R.W., Beasley, D.M., Vale, J.A., & Schep, L.J. (2014). Isopropanol poisoning. Clinical Toxicology, 52(5), 470-478.