What Is Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol?

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Alcohols are a class of organic compounds, one of which is isopropyl alcohol, (CH3)2CH2OH, also called rubbing alcohol, isopropanol or 2-propanol (the latter name is the official, or IUPAC name, for isopropyl alcohol). Rubbing alcohol is most often used medicinally for topical uses.

Uses

  • The descriptive words “rubbing alcohol” refer to rubbing the liquid on the human body, such as on the back, neck, legs or arms. It may be used for cooling or soothing the skin. It can also be used to treat small sores before bandaging, and may be used to dab the place where a member of the medical profession intends to administer an injection.

Dilution

  • Rubbing alcohol is generally diluted, though it can have a concentration of up to 99 percent. Isopropyl alcohol is highly flammable. It also evaporates readily, and the fumes can be easily ignited. Diluting the alcohol with water allows for hydrogen bonding of the water molecules, reducing some volatility and along with it the likelihood of a static spark igniting alcohol fumes.

Commercial Strengths

  • Some purveyors sell isopropyl rubbing alcohol at a concentration of 99 percent. Some sell it at 91 percent. The most commonly available strength of isopropyl rubbing alcohol is a 70 percent solution. It makes sense to dilute it because it both reduces fire risk of ignition and lowers the cost of production.

As a Solvent

  • Sometimes rubbing alcohol can be used as a mild solvent to remove sticky substances from plastic surfaces because most alcohols will not eat through most plastics. The 99 percent variety is useful in cleaning tape recorder heads and flux from solder joints. It can be used to spot-clean glass and other surfaces.

Advisories

  • When using isopropyl rubbing alcohol, it is important to use it as directed and in accord with safety information, such as that found in material safety data sheets (MSDS) for each individual concentration. Particular heed should be paid to the potential of fire hazard because ethyl alcohol and other polar solvents such as isopropyl alcohol can cause fires that are difficult to extinguish, as the Industrial Fire World website points out.

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