Can Rubbing Alcohol Treat Acne?

Hazards and Alternatives You Should Know About

Some people routinely use rubbing alcohol (also known as isopropyl alcohol) to cleanse their face. After all, its antiseptic properties make it useful for cleaning wounds and sanitizing skin before an injection. It would seem reasonable to assume, therefore, that that rubbing alcohol could help clear up pimples as well.

The facts, unfortunately, don't support the assumptions. If anything, rubbing alcohol will probably cause more harm than good.

Rubbing Alcohol as an Astringent

Wiping your face down with rubbing alcohol feels super cool and refreshing, so it may seem like you're getting your skin really clean. But rubbing alcohol doesn’t cleanse or tone the skin, it strips it.

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, it robs the sin of the moisture it needs to stay plump.

You're much better off using a facial wash or cleansing bar to clean the skin and an astringent for toning. These products are designed especially for facial skin and don't interfere with the skin's pH or moisture content.

Rubbing Alcohol and Acne

Despite what some people will tell you, acne is not about "dirty" skin (although poor skin hygiene can contribute). While rubbing alcohol can certainly kill bacteria, acne isn’t caused by bacteria alone.

Acne is a complex process in which the overproduction of certain hormones overstimulate the oil-producing glands of the skin. This can block pores, promote bacterial growth, and cause the inflamed pustules we recognize as acne.

As such, the problem occurs from the bottom up rather than the top down.

The long and short of it is that rubbing alcohol is not an acne treatment. It will not clear up your skin. Good acne treatments target all of the factors that trigger an acne outbreak and not just the ones on the surface of the skin.

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

Alternatives to Rubbing Alcohol

There are gentler ways to combat oily skin besides giving your face an alcohol bath. If your skin is too oily for your liking, you can use a gentle astringent to help reduce excess oil in an appropriate way.

Astringents are skin care products designed to remove excess oil from the skin. Some commercial products even contain acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid. On the downside, some can be unduly expensive and not work as well as some tried-and-true remedies like witch hazel.

Witch hazel, derived from flowering plants in the family Hamamelidaceae, is a great alternative to rubbing alcohol. It is an effective astringent, can prevent dehydration, and even reduce the swelling and irritation of inflamed skin.

Witch hazel is also inexpensive at just a couple of dollars for a 16-ounce bottle. But remember that simply removing excess sebum isn't enough to clear up pimples. To do that, you'll need proven acne treatment medications.

These include prescription and over-the-counter topical treatments such as:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Retinoids, such as Retin-A (tretinoin) and Tazorac (tazarotene).
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Salicylic acid and azelaic acid
  • Aczone (dapsone) for inflammatory acne

A Word from Verywell

Rubbing alcohol isn't an effective acne treatment, and it's definitely not good for your skin. Astringents are a gentler, healthier option. 

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

If you need guidance in selecting the best treatment option, speak with a dermatologist who can help.

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Article Sources
  • "International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC) - Isopropyl Alcohol." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 1 July 2014. Web.
  • "Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Isopropyl Alcohol." Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 05 Aug 2008. U.S. Department of Labor.
  • "Questions and Answers About Acne." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Jan 2006. National Institutes of Health.
  • 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.