Drinking Rubbing Alcohol: Is Isopropyl Alcohol Toxic?

Last Updated: June 10, 2020

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

It is not uncommon to find a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in a first-aid kit or medicine cabinet. Many people keep it on hand to disinfect minor cuts or clean household surfaces. However, some individuals begin to drink rubbing alcohol with the hope of obtaining the same effects as consuming beer, wine, or liquor. Is it safe to drink this substance? Can one overdose on it? What are the side effects? Let’s find out more.

What is Isopropyl Alcohol?

Isopropanol is a colorless flammable liquid that belongs to the same family of compounds as alcoholic drinks. It has a robust fruity odor and a mildly bitter taste. It is a volatile liquid, i.e., it evaporates if the container is left open. Isopropyl alcohol structure is C3H8O. Other rubbing alcohol ingredients include water, denaturants, and perfume oils. It is found in essential oils, body lotions, perfumes, medical swabs, paint thinners, antifreeze, and cleaning supplies.

Rubbing Alcohol Uses

It is primarily used as a topical antiseptic because of its ability to kill harmful germs. Because it is a better solvent than water, it is very useful in removing accumulated grime. It is present in swabs, hand sanitizers, household disinfectants, and cleaning solutions. Isopropanol is also used in several industrial processes.


Medical antiseptic solutions commonly contain 70 percent concentration because this is not harsh to the skin but is still an effective antiseptic. Higher percentages, for example, 99% isopropyl alcohol, are used in household cleaning and disinfecting solutions.

Differences from Ethyl Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol which is produced from yeast. Unlike isopropanol, which is toxic when ingested, ethanol is suitable to drink. Although it is also a volatile, colorless liquid, the chemical formula of ethanol is different (C2H6O), and it has a less strong odor compared to isopropanol.

ethanol and isopropanol alcohol

Can One Drink Rubbing Alcohol?

Some people drink isopropanol to become intoxicated. However, this substance is not intended for human consumption, and its abuse can prove fatal. Just 500 mL (a little more than a pint) ingested over a 24-hour period is equivalent to drinking 30 beers.

Can one get drunk off rubbing alcohol? Yes, this substance does cause intoxication. It can lead to poisoning and potential death and consuming it is extremely dangerous.

Other methods of abuse include huffing and sniffing rubbing alcohol to inhale the vapors. However, isopropyl alcohol inhalation in large amounts can have several dangerous effects, including breathing difficulty and loss of consciousness. In addition to drinking and inhaling rubbing alcohol, spilling the substance on the skin can lead to accidental poisoning. Repeated or prolonged exposure can cause itching, redness, and skin corrosion.

Isopropyl Alcohol Metabolism

What happens if a person drinks isopropyl alcohol? In the human body, isopropanol is oxidized in the liver to form a toxic chemical called acetone. It has a half-life of 2.5 to 8 hours (the time is taken for half the substance to be removed from the body by biological processes). The peak concentration following ingestion occurs within 30 minutes. It is removed from the body mainly through the kidneys.

The alcoholic beverages we drink are also metabolized by the liver but much more efficiently. They are broken down into acetaldehyde and acetate. One standard drink stays in the body for about 2 hours after ingestion. The effects become evident in 10 minutes, but peak concentration is reached in approximately one hour.

Side Effects of Isopropanol

Isopropyl alcohol ingestion causes rapid intoxication because of its immediate effect on the central nervous system.

man suffering from side effects of rubbing alcohol

Some of the side effects of this substance include:

  • Stomachache
  • Chest tightness
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Headache
  • Clammy skin
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritation of the eyes, throat, stomach, and intestines
  • Poor coordination
  • Narrowed pupils
  • Urinary problems

Isopropyl Alcohol Toxicity And Overdose

Is isopropyl alcohol toxic? Yes, it is about twice as toxic as the ethanol in beverages that we drink (liquors). In fact, poisoning can occur within 30-60 minutes of ingestion with serious effects such as slowed breathing, slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, hypothermia, bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, gastritis, brain damage, and coma. A small bottle (about 8 ounces or 250 mL) of rubbing spirit ingested by mouth can prove lethal.

Isopropanol Abuse

Most people drink rubbing intoxicants to get the same effects as ethanol. Others inhale the vapors to experience euphoria. Some of the circumstances that may lead a person to drink isopropanol include:

  • People struggling with severe addiction may resort to non-beverage alcohol such as aftershave, mouthwash, or hand sanitizer for intoxication
  • Long-term alcoholics may develop a tolerance and want to drink stronger forms
  • Underage persons who are not allowed to drink legally may seek a less regulated source
  • Individuals with limited resources may try to become intoxicated on easily available and relatively inexpensive household products

Young people who are keen to experiment and recreational drug users seeking a rapid and intense high are likely to try isopropyl alcohol ingestion and are at risk of developing an addiction similar to alcoholism. Some people are confused and do not realize that one cannot drink certain types of alcohol. Sometimes depressed individuals who are well aware of the dangers of this substance will drink a large amount in an attempt to commit suicide.

Beating Addiction to Rubbing Alcohol

There is a tremendous risk of injury and death from isopropyl alcohol poisoning. Individuals who have consumed this substance require aggressive medical care and life support measures. That’s why it’s important to get help if abuse is suspected. Professionals at a reputed rehabilitation facility can help addicts recover from alcohol abuse.

Page Sources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24815348

Published on: November 30th, 2018

Updated on: June 10th, 2020

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.


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