In the 1970s and '80s, parents stuck bright green mad-faced "Mr. Yuk" stickers on poisonous household items—including rubbing alcohol—to warn vulnerable children and adults against consuming or inhaling the toxin. The poison-awareness stickers eventually proved to be ineffective with kids, but the visual is still in many people's minds: rubbing alcohol is a poison.
Individuals with chronic alcohol use disorder, however, probably aren't thinking about those poison awareness stickers. Those struggling with alcoholism or addiction might see that rubbing alcohol has "alcohol" in its title, know that it's cheaper than fermented or distilled ethanol alcohol, it's widely available over-the-counter (and under-the-counter, as many people store it under kitchen and bathroom sinks, particularly when there's no risk of small children accidentally ingesting it), and drinking enough of it can lead to intoxication. The side effects of rubbing alcohol poisoning mirror those of a drunk person, however, it's not even close to being the same alcohol you purchase at liquor stores. This substance is a poison. Drinking just a small amount can result in fatal consequences.
There are three types of alcohol classified by chemists: isopropyl, methyl and ethyl alcohol. Most types of rubbing alcohol are made from isopropyl alcohol, with concentrations of 68-99 percent alcohol in water. It's colorless, tastes horrible, smells like fingernail polish remover and can be found in antiseptic hand sanitizers, antifreeze, household cleaners, paint thinner, personal care products and sterilizers commonly used in medical settings (it's nicknamed a "surgical spirit" in the United Kingdom). In order to make this substance unpleasant to drink, isopropyl alcohol is spliced with chemicals in a laboratory to give it a bitter taste.
Methyl alcohol, methanol and wood alcohol—named because it was once produced as a byproduct of the destructive distillation of wood—are all the same type of alcohol. Methyl alcohol is commonly found in paint remover/thinner, carburetor fluid, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, octane boosters, copy machines, canned fuels for boats or camp stoves, or—very commonly—converted to formaldehyde. It's colorless, flammable, smells strong and can be absorbed through the eyes, skin, lungs and digestive system. Symptoms of ingesting the substance include difficulty breathing, blurred vision or blindness (formaldehyde can damage optic nerves), low blood pressure, fatigue, and damage to the nervous system, stomach and intestines.
Ethyl alcohol, widely known as ethanol, grain alcohol or drinking alcohol, is found in alcoholic beverages. It's colorless, flammable and—when denatured (think: chemicals added to discourage recreational consumption)—can be used as a fuel additive or topical antiseptic. Ethanol is the scientific name for the intoxicating agent produced when sugar is fermented by yeast. Even though you can drink ethanol when diluted, it's not completely foolproof.
According to the Alcohol Content Database, alcoholic beverages have the following concentration of alcohol:
In contrast, store-bought rubbing alcohol is 70 percent isopropyl alcohol, or 140-proof when measured in ethanol terms. It's metabolized differently, causing the body to become overwhelmed by the toxins.
When it comes to drinking rubbing alcohol, the digestive tract suffers the most, even when only swallowing a small amount. The body metabolizes these extremely high alcohol levels into acetone. If consumed to intoxication, the substance can lead to organ damage. Because it's a central nervous system depressant, side effects can include dizziness, headaches and inebriation. Because it's a gastrointestinal irritant, it can cause nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting blood. In addition, "due to having a higher molecular weight than ethanol, isopropanol, is more intoxicating than ethanol and can produce an altered sensorium, hypotension, hypothermia, and even cardiopulmonary collapse. Hypotension is associated with severe overdose and related to a mortality rate of nearly 45 percent," according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
After being raced to the hospital, the following tests or procedures may be performed:
For someone who wants to get drunk as fast as possible, yes, isopropyl alcohol will do the trick. According to the NCBI, "nearly 80 percent is absorbed [into the bloodstream] within 30 minutes of ingestion." The effects kick in rapidly.
Odds are high that the individual won't only get drunk on this dangerously toxic beverage, they'll black out and possibly even die.
According to Livestrong.org, "The approximate lethal dose of 90 to 100 percent isopropanol for human adults is only 250 milliliters, or about 8 ounces." Eight ounces. To put it in perspective: the average shot glass is 1.5 ounces. A can of Coke is 12 ounces. Ingesting only eight ounces of rubbing alcohol can kill you.
If a person drinks even a small amount and has any of the above-mentioned side effects, call 911—medical attention is necessary immediately. Do not induce vomiting. The caustic nature of rubbing alcohol can cause chemical burns to the esophagus. If rubbing alcohol was inhaled, move to fresh air. If the substance is on the skin, flush with water. Before calling 911, know the person's age, weight and condition; name of the product; time it was swallowed and how much was swallowed.
Under no circumstances is rubbing alcohol intended for consumption. It is not a substitute for alcohol, wine or beer. It is toxic. If you suspect someone has isopropyl alcohol poisoning—whether by accident or on purpose (desperation, experimentation)—call 911 and the American Association of Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
If you know someone considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or other drug addiction, call us at 1-844-948-2425.