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Why Is Drinking Rubbing Alcohol Bad?

October 18th, 2010 – Posted by James W. West M.D. F.A.C.S. in Doctors Office


Question:  I lived on the street for a time after I lost my job.  Out there, if they can’t get anything else, some people drink rubbing alcohol.  What is in rubbing alcohol that is so bad?

Answer:  Rubbing alcohol is not ethyl alcohol (beverage alcohol), but isopropyl alcohol, a totally different chemical than the alcohol of beer, wine, or liquor.  The lethal dose of isopropyl alcohol by mouth in adult humans is about 8 ounces.  Another kind of poison is wood alcohol.  This is methyl alcohol and it breaks down in the liver to formaldehyde.  Those who survive after drinking it often suffer permanent blindness.  As little as 2 ounces of wood alcohol can be fatal.

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11 Responses to “Why is drinking rubbing alcohol bad?”

  1. Joseph L. says:

    Here is a good example of a helpful but rigorously truthful answer. The truth is that you can indeed drink isopropyl alcohol to get drunk, but it’s not a good idea. Where most anti-abuse sites get it wrong is explaining why. Isopropyl alcohol is not dangerous in the way methyl or wood alcohol is. Methyl alcohol will actually cause neurological damage even in small amounts. And if it doesn’t kill you, can leave you incurably blind. Isopropyl is NOT toxic in the same way and can get you drunk. In fact, it metabolizes into acetone which might sound dangerously toxic but is actually less toxic than what ethyl alcohol (e.g. liquor) metabolizes into. So in that respect it could be considered marginally safer than the alcohol in beer and liquor. So why isn’t it used or even promoted for consumption over ethyl alcohol? Easy question. It’s far more potent. Even the alcohol in liquor is potentially deadly if enough is consumed in a short enough time. The problem with isopropyl alcohol is that it’s so much more potent in its CNS effects that the margin between drunk and overdose (dead) is comparatively razor thin. It’s far too potent and dangerous to be sold or recommended for consumption. Even a small bottle of isopropyl alcohol (say 8 oz.) contains a potentially lethal dose if consumed all at once. So the last word is that yes, it could be consumed for intoxication, but even the most rigidly disciplined person is in extreme danger of overdosage and death if drinking isopropyl alcohol.

    That’s the truth. Where many anti-abuse arguments fail the vulnerable is in maintaining the scare line–that isopropyl alcohol is toxic in even tiny amounts, like wood or methyl alcohol. Unfortunately the truth is too easily available to anyone who is handy with Google and once that argument against isopropyl consumption falls, a curious person might also then discount the perfectly legitimate argument that isopropyl consumption is still terribly dangerous for other reasons. Mistake or misrepresentation (like the laughable supposed “hazards” of marijuana use that have been floating around unproven for a century but never seem to go away) will always weaken even the most legitimate arguments.

    If you would counsel against substance abuse, do so with enthusiasm. But check your facts, leave the propaganda at home, and always tell the truth. Otherwise you will be ignored. Even when you have something important to say.

  2. Joseph L. says:

    Meaning that the original answer by Dr. West is both helpful and truthful/factual. That’s exactly the kind of information a person on the edge needs to see. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of questions like that being answered with scare tactics rather than the bare truth.

  3. thedoc says:

    I always thought it broke down into a dangerous substance in your body. Well, thanks for sharing the info. One time, I put just a little drop of rubbing alcohol into a soda and that made me a little drunk, but I was careful though so I didn’t take anymore afterwards. Since I knew when to stop and to only use literally a small drop I was fine, but you still should not mess with something that dangerous, though.

  4. Sarah says:

    My sister was a recovering alcoholic who had relapsed. She was found dead in her home a couple of days after X-mas 2013. She was 46 yrs old and cause of death unknown. The coroner blood studies revealed that my sister died from drinking rubbing alcohol. I believe her death was an accident. Alcoholics will resort to anything and lose the ability of having rational thought process.

  5. Cesar says:

    I drank isopropyl :( and it burned my throat so bad and it was hard to breath.
    It was a suicide attempt.

  6. Mackyj says:

    It’s a terrible idea, I threw up and coughed two minutes straight even after I diluted it to one cap to 2 liters and drank 2 cups of it.
    Thank god I puked I feel terrible.

  7. Luke says:

    The issue with Joseph L.’s response is that he fails to mention that IPA is denatured in most all cases of common usage, such as rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, etc. The denaturing process consists of adding poisons or toxins to a substance to deter its usage, such as in the case of isopropyl alcohol. This denaturing is the reason why you should NEVER drink isopropyl alcohol else you will throw up, get sick, and potentially die.

  8. Beth D. says:

    I feel the need to spell out Luke’s “IPA” abbreviation as it can also stand for “Indiana Pale Ale” and probably other things. IPA here stands for “IsoPropyl Alcohol”. I just want to eliminate any possible confusion because misinterpretation can be as bad as misinformation or ignorance.

  9. Betty Ford Center says:

    Thank you for not only reading this but adding the clarification.

  10. Maximus says:

    Just for clarification it’s India Pale Ale, not Indiana Pale Ale.

  11. Dave says:

    The bottom line is that the government requires it be made poisonous denatured so that that people don’t try to avoid the alcohol sales tax to save money by drinking it instead.

    The argument about it being more potent doesn’t hold water (pun intended) because it could quite easily be watered down to a lower strength before sale.

    To put it another way, anyone consuming enough of anything to completely lose their mind and sense of consciousness is poisoning themselves, and if not permanent physical damage then still risking other forms of injury. There is no “safe” way to maintain a lifestyle of that level of intoxication.

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