Can Rubbing Alcohol Treat Acne?

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Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) has many helpful uses, from cleaning out wounds to sanitizing skin before an injection. Given its antiseptic properties, some with acne reach for it in an effort to help cleanse their face. While it may seem similar to some over-the-counter skin products, dermatologists recommend against using rubbing alcohol for acne, as it could prove to be too harsh for facial skin and ultimately cause more harm than good.

What Rubbing Alcohol Does to Skin

For its recommended uses, rubbing alcohol can be very effective at fighting bacteria. And since it's used to clean the skin in these circumstances, it seems to logically follow that it's good for getting facial skin clean as well.

The problem is that, unlike products specifically formulated to cleanse the skin, rubbing alcohol has a very high alcohol content (typically at least 70%). While wiping your face with it can feel cool and refreshing, rubbing alcohol can be so harsh that it strips your skin's barrier of the natural oils it needs to say hydrated. And since acne treatment is typically used at least daily, it's very likely that you'll dry out your skin if you use rubbing alcohol for this purpose.

Though taming oil may be the goal of your acne-fighting efforts, significantly altering the balance of your natural oils can actually induce a breakout.

Repeated exposure to isopropyl alcohol "defats" the skin, meaning that it strips it of its natural oil (sebum). This not only eliminates a key protective bacterial barrier, but it also robs the skin of the moisture it needs to stay hydrated.

Even when used to heal a popped pimple, rubbing alcohol can leave the skin tight, dry, and flaky, as well as make redness worse. If used with topical acne medication like benzoyl peroxide, rubbing alcohol can irritate and dry your skin out even faster. Worse yet, it may even promote scarring.

Acne's Not Just About "Dirty" Skin

Although poor skin hygiene can contribute to acne, there's more to it than that. It stems from a complex process in which the overproduction of certain hormones overstimulates the oil-producing glands of the skin. This can block pores, promote bacterial growth, and cause the inflamed pustules more commonly referred to as pimples or zits.

While rubbing alcohol can certainly kill bacteria, it will do so at the expense of your skin's overall health. Further, good acne treatment regimens target all of the factors that trigger an acne outbreak and not just the ones on the surface of the skin.

Alternatives to Rubbing Alcohol

Leave the rubbing alcohol for a skinned knee or paper cut. For acne, you're much better off using a gentle facial wash or cleansing bar to clean the skin. For toning, opt for an astringent, which can help remove the excess dirt and oil.

These products are designed especially for facial skin, have a much lower (or no) alcohol content, and don't interfere with the skin's pH or moisture levels. Furthermore, many such products include additional ingredients to hydrate and soothe, especially if they are designed for those with sensitive skin. Some commercial products even contain acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid.

Witch hazel, derived from flowering plants in the Hamamelidaceae family, is a great natural alternative to rubbing alcohol. It is an effective astringent, can prevent dehydration, and even reduce the swelling and irritation of inflamed skin. Bonus: It is relatively inexpensive, costing just a few dollars for large bottle.

Acne Treatments

These options will cleanse your skin, but simply removing excess oil often isn't enough to clear up pimples. To do that, you'll usually need proven acne treatment medications.

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

Prescription and over-the-counter topical treatments include:

  • Products containing benzoyl peroxide
  • Products containing salicylic acid and azelaic acid
  • Retinoids, such as Retin-A (tretinoin) and Tazorac (tazarotene)
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Aczone (dapsone) for inflammatory acne

A Word From Verywell

Acne can be stubborn and persistent. If you've already discovered that, you may find yourself willing to try anything and everything to clear things up. Rubbing alcohol an option that simply is best to avoid. If you've tried treatments specifically designed to address acne without success, consider seeing a dermatologist.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Acne. Updated September 2016.

  2. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE, et. al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016; 74(5): 945-73. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

Additional Reading

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Isopropyl alcohol. Updated September 28, 2011.