You know, there is a disturbing amount of misinformation online about the use of rubbing alcohol, and it's all the more alarming because some of that misinformation can have life-threatening consequences.
Rubbing alcohol is most commonly sold in concentrations of 50%, 70%, and 91% (not 90% as many writers indicate). There is also 99% isopropyl alcohol, which is generally for industrial and technical uses, and which doesn't really pertain to us. Despite extensive research, I haven't quite figured out the purpose of the 50% rubbing alcohol, which has been stocked in stores the past few years. Rubbing alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are different substances; the former is a mixture of compounds, while the latter is a single compound. Rubbing alcohol is what we use for cleaning the skin.
The first bit of misinformation that many online bloggers share is that 70% and 91% (or 90%, as they write) can be used interchangeably. While that may be fine for fire-starting purposes, when it comes to medicine, that is most definitely not the case. A 70% rubbing alcohol solution is more effective at disinfecting than the 91% solution. This is because water is needed to carry the alcohol into the bacteria to kill the bacteria. A 91% solution of alcohol evaporates faster and has less water to take the alcohol into the bacteria and kill them.
The second, potentially deadly, bit of misinformation perpetuated online is that rubbing alcohol is useful in reducing a fever. Well, actually, it does work pretty well in lowering body temperature. However, one of the basics tenets of medicine is to first, "Do no harm." And using rubbing alcohol to reduce a fever can most definitely be harmful. Remember, alcohol can poison the body by drinking, by absorption through the skin, or by inhaling the vapors. When alcohol is rubbed on the body to reduce a fever, that alcohol is absorbed into the body at a toxic level. The vapors are also inhaled by the patient. Using rubbing alcohol to lower a temperature was common practice through much of the last century. Unfortunately, the practice persists with some physicians, even with increasing numbers of cases of alcohol poisoning causing coma and death, especially in infants and small children.
Having addressed those issues of poor information, let's move on to what rubbing alcohol is used for.
Making a liniment. As the name suggests, rubbing alcohol is for rubbing, though it is rarely used for this purpose today. It is perfectly safe to apply small amounts of a 70% solution of rubbing alcohol to sore muscles and joints. It can be used alone, or rubbing alcohol can be used to tincture various medicinal herbs to make a liniment for greater relief of aches and pains. In no case should rubbing alcohol be used as a liniment for infants and children. The risk of toxic overload is too high.
Disinfecting the skin. However, using a little bit of alcohol to disinfect the skin before getting an injection or cleaning around a wound is perfectly fine. Alcohol (and other chemical disinfectants) are never used in a wound. Alcohol is used to kill bacteria. It will also destroy living tissue and retard healing. Only clean water or sterile saline is used in a wound.
Disinfecting instruments. A 70% solution of rubbing alcohol can be used to disinfect instruments. Instruments must soak for at least twelve hours. Note that rubbing alcohol does not kill all bacteria and viruses, so sterilization is not achieved. If, however, you cannot wait twelve hours and/or you need sterilized instruments, the alcohol containing the instruments may be ignited to produce rapid sterilization. But keep in mind that the intense heat may damage delicate instruments.
Treating an ear infection. Rubbing alcohol can be used to manage an ear infection.
- Combine 1/4 teaspoon rubbing alcohol and 1/4 teaspoon vinegar or hydrogen peroxide.
- With the afflicted individual lying on his side, put 3-4 drops of the mixture in the affected ear.
- Have the patient remain in this position for 5 minutes, and then tilt the head and drain out the solution.
- Next, place a few drops of plain warm olive oil in the ear. This does not need to be drained out.
Making a reusable ice pack. Combine three parts water to one part rubbing alcohol in a zippered bag or vacuum seal bag and seal. Freeze for three hours. These ice packs are quite flexible and can be shaped around the afflicted body part to reduce pain and swelling. Do not place these ice packs directly next to the skin. Make sure there is a cloth of some sort to protect the skin from frostbite.
Making hand sanitizer. Though recent research is showing that hand sanitizer is far less effective than previously believed, there are some situations where regular hand washing is difficult. Having some hand sanitizer available is a good idea. However, hand sanitizer is one of those few items that do actually go bad and aren't of much efficacy past their use-by date. And that is because the alcohol evaporates, and it's the alcohol that kills the germs. Your best bet here is to store some aloe vera gel so that you can make your own hand sanitizer as needed. It's really easy.
- 2 tablespoons rubbing alcohol
- 1 tablespoon aloe vera gel
Put it in a small squeeze bottle and apply as needed. Of course, if you need larger quantities, just keep the same 2:1 ratio. Just remember to keep the container sealed and then replenish it often. Once the alcohol evaporates, the hand sanitizer isn't sanitizing anything.
Starting a fire. Alcohol pads make a great little fire starter.
Cooking. A 91% solution of rubbing alcohol works quite well as a cooking fuel, and instructions abound online for making little stoves that utilize rubbing alcohol as their fuel. Rubbing alcohol is nice in that it can be used indoors without concern for noxious fumes. However, it burns at a lower temperature than other fuels, so it takes longer to cook food.
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