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What is the Difference Between Rubbing Alcohol and the Alcohol We Drink?

By Derek Schauland
Updated May 16, 2024
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Rubbing alcohol is made mostly from isopropyl alcohol and a little water. Other alcohols, such as methanol, are often mixed with it at very high concentrations to produce a distinct smell and deter its consumption. It is denatured, which means that it has been made poisonous. The concentrations and types of alcohol used are very toxic to humans and can quickly cause brain damage or death.

Alcohol that is relatively safe for human consumption is ethanol based and contains much less alcohol produced by distillation or the fermentation of sugars. This keeps the amount of alcohol in a drink much lower than the concentration found in rubbing alcohol. Rubbing alcohol is close to 100% alcohol.

Both kinds of alcohol are toxic to the human body, however. Because of the much lower concentrations found in beverages, the affects are rarely life threatening. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation to prevent alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.

The mixture of alcohols found in rubbing alcohol is what produces its odor. This can be used to identify the liquid, acting as a warning to those handling it that it is not consumable. Methanol is very poisonous to humans, even in small concentrations.

Ethanol found in beer is produced as a byproduct of the reaction between sugars found in the yeast and malt used in the brewing process. When the yeast is added, it feeds off of the sugar, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. Once the alcohol gets to a certain level, there will not be enough sugar left to continue feeding the yeast, which can then be filtered out of the mixture. This keeps the amount of alcohol between 4 and 12% by volume.

The distillation process also produces ethanol in other beverages. The concentration in these drinks is usually higher than that produced during the brewing process, depending on the methods used, but does not come close to the amount of alcohol found in rubbing alcohols.

The effects of rubbing alcohol are similar to those of ethanol in that they can cause the same symptoms, but its absorption rate is much faster and the effects are seen far sooner. While someone who swallows a small amount is not likely to die, it is possible, depending on the amount consumed. If someone accidentally ingests isopropyl alcohol, he or she should seek medical attention or contact the poison control center immediately.

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Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Sep 11, 2012

@anamur-- That type of alcohol (with the added chemicals) is usually called "denatured alcohol." Some rubbing alcohol does fit into this category but I believe there are some that don't. It really depends on the specific product and the ingredients list would clarify that.

Technically rubbing alcohol is a combination of water and isopropyl alcohol. If it happens to also have some methanol (stuff that's in your windshield cleaner) or isopropanol, then it's also denatured alcohol.

By discographer — On Sep 10, 2012

@SkittisH-- You would be surprised! People actually try drinking rubbing alcohol all the time! It happens all over the world. I read about a guy who did that in the paper just recently. He went blind!

There is a warning on bottles of rubbing alcohol not to consume it. I guess the other commentor is right. People who are dealing with alcoholism might become desperate enough to drink rubbing alcohol. I don't know what could be done about that though, to prevent alcoholics from purchasing it. You really can't prevent that.

By serenesurface — On Sep 09, 2012

@malmal, @Pharoah-- As far as I know, companies put other chemicals into rubbing alcohol to make it more poisonous so that people can't drink them.

I heard that a long time ago, there wasn't that much difference between the alcohol used for medical purposes and the alcohol people drank. But people abused this, they went and bought the alcohol from the pharmacies to drink.

To prevent this, companies started adding other chemicals into rubbing alcohol to make it so poisonous that if someone tried to drink it, they would get very, very sick!

By Pharoah — On Sep 05, 2012

@eidetic - Yeah, as the article said, regular drinking alcohol is ethanol, rubbing alcohol is made from something called methanol, which is much stronger and more toxic. I actually didn't know this until recently. I wonder if there are warnings on the bottle?

Either way, I have heard of people who have really severe alcoholism trying to drink rubbing alcohol (and other household products that contain alcohol) and then getting really sick.

By eidetic — On Sep 04, 2012

I had no idea that the alcohol that is the rubbing alcohol ingredient wasn't the same kind of alcohol that we drink. I just thought it was a much, much higher concentration of alcohol than you would find in an alcohol meant for drinking. Very interesting.

By SkittisH — On May 24, 2011

You can get drunk on rubbing alcohol -- who knew? Of course, it smells disgusting, and apparently it's really poisonous, so I'm not sure why anybody would try. I'll stick with my forty percent by volume rum or vodka, thanks.

By hanley79 — On May 23, 2011

@malmal - No, diluting rubbing alcohol wouldn't make it any less toxic, because the types of alcohols that it is made up of are highly toxic to humans and can cause brain damage.

See, ethanol is the edible kind of alcohol, and rubbing alcohol is mixed with a bunch of different kinds of alcohol, including methanol. It's a bit confusing since the names are so similar, but methanol isn't edible -- in fact, some of its most common uses are for antifreeze and race car fuel.

By malmal — On May 21, 2011

Wow, regular drinking style alcohol is actually poisonous? I guess that's how you can get alcohol poisoning, but I always figured alcohol poisoning was just an example of "too much of a good thing can be bad".

I know they're made a bit differently, but it sounds like most of the difference is to deter people from drinking the rubbing alcohol. My question is this: if it was diluted down a lot, would rubbing alcohol be about as dangerous as drinking regular alcohol?

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