Does Rubbing Alcohol Help With Acne?

Popular antiseptic may cause more harm than good

Rubbing alcohol does not help with acne and may actually make it worse. Applying rubbing alcohol to your face or other acne-prone areas can strip natural oils from the outer layer of the skin and undermine the skin's barrier function, allowing bacteria easier access to pores and breaks in the skin.

This article describes the effect of rubbing alcohol on the skin and why it may cause more harm than good. It also offers several alternatives to keep your skin clean while preventing pimples.

A woman using alcohol to treat acne
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Rubbing Alcohol Effects on Skin

Rubbing alcohol (isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol) is antiseptic, meaning that it prevents the growth of disease-causing microorganisms. This makes it useful for cleaning wounds and sanitizing the skin before an injection.

Although isopropanol is found in many skincare products—most specifically astringents that clean and tighten skin—it is diluted to levels that are less harsh on the skin. Some may tolerate this well, while those with sensitive skin may not.

Undiluted rubbing alcohol has a different effect on the skin. Unlike products specifically formulated for facial skin, rubbing alcohol has a very high alcohol content (typically at least 70%). This can affect sebum, your skin's natural oils.

Sebum has many key functions essential to skin health. It:

  • Lubricates the skin to protect against friction
  • Locks in moisture by preventing evaporation
  • Makes skin impervious to external moisture that can cause dryness during evaporation
  • Transports antioxidants (like vitamin E) from sebaceous glands to the skin, protecting it from harmful free radicals
  • Provides protection against harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun
  • Has antibacterial properties that can reduce the risk of skin infections
  • Has anti-inflammatory properties that help ease tissue redness and swelling

By stripping the skin of sebum, you remove the natural protections that can help the skin heal if you have acne. Even the occasional use of rubbing alcohol can cause skin irritation, dryness, and inflammation.

Is Acne Caused by Dirty Skin?

Although poor skin hygiene can contribute to acne, acne ultimately stems from the overproduction of hormones that overstimulate the oil-producing sebaceous glands. Rubbing alcohol can kill this bacteria, but it does so at the expense of your skin's health.

Alternatives to Rubbing Alcohol for Acne

It is best to use rubbing alcohol for things like a skinned knee or paper cut (although soap and water work just fine, too). For acne, you're much better off using a gentle facial wash or cleansing bar to clean your skin.

For toning, opt for a non-alcohol-based astringent containing acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid. Some astringents also contain witch hazel, a natural alternative that can prevent moisture loss and reduces skin inflammation.

Or instead of an astringent, try using a toner made with gentler ingredients like camphor, green tea, or aloe vera. As opposed to astringents that clean and tighten skin, toners help clean, hydrate, and nourish the skin while balancing out the skin's pH levels.

Acne Treatments

Simply removing excess oil from the skin isn't enough to clear up pimples. To do that, you will likely need proven acne treatment medications.

If you want to treat a pimple, dab on an over-the-counter blemish spot treatment rather than using rubbing alcohol. The regular use of these acne-specific medications can often stop pimples before they start.

Prescription and over-the-counter treatments options include:

Because acne can be stubborn and persistent, you may find yourself willing to try anything to clear things up. Of all the possible options, rubbing alcohol is one of the worse.

If you are unable to gain control of stubborn acne outbreaks, consider seeing a dermatologist for more effective treatments and advice.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE, et. al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Amer Acad Dermatol. 2016; 74(5): 945-73. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Isopropyl alcohol.

  3. Shamloul G, Khachemoune A. An updated review of the sebaceous gland and its role in health and diseases. Part 1: embryology, evolution, structure, and function of sebaceous glands. Dermatol Ther. 2021 Jan;34(1):e14695. doi:10.1111/dth.14695

  4. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Acne.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.