Rubbing alcohol, USP / Surgical spirit, B.P. is a liquid prepared and used primarily for topical application. It is prepared from a special denatured alcohol solution and contains approximately 70 percent by volume of pure, concentrated ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol (propan-2-ol). Individual manufacturers can use their own "formulation standards" in which the ethanol content usually ranges from 70-99% v/v. In Ireland and the UK, the equivalent skin preparation is surgical spirit. It is colorless. The freezing point is −89 °C (−128 °F). The boiling point is 82.5 °C (180.5 °F).
The term "rubbing alcohol" has become a general non-specific term for either isopropyl alcohol or ethyl alcohol (ethanol) rubbing-alcohol products. Common "rubbing alcohol" is unsafe for human consumption, as isopropyl alcohol is a different chemical than the ethyl alcohol in alcoholic beverages. The lethal dose of isopropyl alcohol by mouth in adult humans is about 8 ounces (250 ml). Not to be confused with methyl alcohol, which may be commonly called "wood alcohol". Fatal in even small doses, methyl alcohol breaks down in the liver to create formaldehyde (methanal).
Rubbing alcohol is a volatile and flammable liquid. It has an extremely bitter taste from its additives and (in the absence of added odorous substances) a characteristic odor. The specific gravity of Formula 23-H is between 0.8691 and 0.8771 at 15.56 °C (60.01 °F).
Isopropyl rubbing alcohol USP/B.P. contains 68–99% of isopropyl alcohol by volume, the remainder consisting of water, with or without color additives, suitable stabilizers, and perfume oils. Isopropyl alcohol is oxidized by the liver into acetone. Symptoms of isopropyl alcohol poisoning include flushing, headache, dizziness, central nervous system depression, nausea, vomiting, anesthesia, and coma.
To protect alcohol tax revenue in the United States, all preparations classified as Rubbing Alcohols (defined as those containing ethanol) must have poisonous additives to limit human consumption in accordance with the requirements of the US Treasury Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, using Formula 23-H (8 parts by volume of acetone, 1.5 parts by volume of methyl isobutyl ketone, and 100 parts by volume of ethyl alcohol). It contains 87.5-91% by volume of absolute ethyl alcohol. The rest consists of water and the denaturants, with or without color additives, and perfume oils. Rubbing alcohol contains in each 100 mL not less than 355 mg of sucrose octaacetate or not less than 1.40 mg of denatonium benzoate. The preparation may be colored with one or more color additives. A suitable stabilizer may also be added.
Product labels for rubbing alcohol include a number of warnings about the chemical, including the flammability hazards and its intended use only as a topical antiseptic and not for internal wounds or consumption. It should be used in a well-ventilated area due to inhalation hazards. Poisoning can occur from ingestion, inhalation, absorption, or consumption of rubbing alcohol.
- See Industrial Alcohol In Washington State, "Rubbing Alcohol is a cooling and soothing liquid for external application that contains approximately 70 percent denatured ethyl alcohol or isopropanol."
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