Isopropyl Alcohol vs Rubbing Alcohol

by Jessica Clifton

Isopropyl alcohol, which is also known as isopropanol and propan-2-ol, comes in different grades and has a large variety of applications in many different industries.

What is Isopropyl Alcohol?

Isopropyl alcohol is a common compound in the alcohol family, a multi-purpose chemical which is widely-used as a solvent because of its ability to dissolve oils and resins, amongst other things. It is a colourless, flammable, volatile liquid which has a strong, instantly-recognisable smell.

IPA, as isopropyl alcohol is commonly known, is produced using three methods: indirect hydration of propylene, direct hydration of propylene, and catalytic hydrogenation of acetone.

Isopropyl Alcohol vs Rubbing Alcohol

Uses of Isopropyl Alcohol

Aside from being a common solvent, isopropyl alcohol has many uses such as:

  • Cleaning agent
  • Astringent
  • Dilution and extraction in lab chemicals
  • Cold-cleaning in electroplating
  • Stripping paint
  • Combatting muscle and joint aches
  • Disinfectant

What Does Isopropyl Alcohol Have To Do With Rubbing Alcohol?

Rubbing alcohol is either isopropyl alcohol or ethyl alcohol that has been mixed with water. In Britain it’s also known as surgical spirit, according to the British Pharmacopoeia. Rubbing alcohol which has been made from isopropyl alcohol is the most widely available, and is used mainly as an antiseptic in the home. It is for external use only.

Manufacturers of rubbing alcohol can make the solution according to their own formulation and standards, with a range of alcohol content between 70-99% v/v. The most common formula contains 70% isopropyl alcohol, the remainder being water, denaturants, and perfume oils.

Rubbing alcohol is definitely not the type of alcohol you would drink, because of its high proof. Isopropyl-based rubbing alcohol doesn’t contain the ethyl alcohol that you need in alcoholic drinks; and ethyl-based rubbing alcohol uses denatured alcohol, which includes at least one bitter poison that renders it toxic.

Why Is It Called Rubbing Alcohol?

The name ‘rubbing alcohol’ was coined in the United States during the 1920s, for two reasons. Firstly, the solution was used as a liniment in massages, and was literally rubbed in. During this time different additives and perfumes were added, so it didn’t have quite the pungent aroma it has today.

Secondly, this was Prohibition-era and there was a need to distinguish rubbing alcohol from alcoholic beverages. Despite that, there were instances of rubbing alcohol being used as a drink – with ill effects.

An image showing Rubbing Alcohol in a 2.5litre container

Other Uses of Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol can also be used as a household cleaner when mixed with water. Make sure you use it in a well-ventilated area away from heat sources, as both the fumes and solution are flammable.

This mixture is great for cleaning stainless steel, mirrors, and glass as it dries streak-free. You can also use it to remove permanent marker and even defrost your car windows.

At ReAgent, we manufacture isopropyl alcohol and rubbing alcohol in a range of sizes. Contact our expert team today to discuss your requirements.


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