Rubbing alcohol is a common disinfectant and household cleaner. It’s also the main ingredient in many hand sanitizers.

While it has a long shelf life, it does expire.

So, what exactly does the expiration date mean? Does rubbing alcohol still do its job if you use it beyond its expiration date?

In this article, we’ll answer these questions and provide more insight into the safety and effectiveness of rubbing alcohol.

Rubbing alcohol is clear and colorless. It has a strong, sharp smell.

The main ingredient in rubbing alcohol is isopropanol, also known as isopropyl alcohol. Most forms of rubbing alcohol have at least 60 percent isopropanol, while the remaining percentage is water.

Isopropanol is an antimicrobial agent. In other words, it kills germs and bacteria. One of its main uses is for disinfecting your skin and other surfaces.

The higher the percentage of isopropanol, the more effective it is as a disinfectant.

If you’ve ever had an injection or a blood sample drawn, rubbing alcohol was probably used to clean your skin beforehand. It feels cool when applied to your skin.

Isopropyl alcohol is also a common ingredient in many hand sanitizers, including liquids, gels, foams, and wipes.

Hand sanitizers can help prevent the spread of viruses, such as the new coronavirus, along with seasonal cold and flu germs.

However, if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, washing your hands with soap and water is more effective than using hand sanitizer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends any alcohol-based hand rub that contains at least 70 percent isopropanol or 60 percent ethanol.

You can also use rubbing alcohol applied to a microfiber cloth or cotton swab to disinfect high-touch surfaces around your home, such as:

  • your mobile phone
  • door handles
  • light switches
  • computer keyboards
  • remote controls
  • faucets
  • staircase railings
  • handles on appliances like the refrigerator, oven, microwave

Rubbing alcohol has an expiration date. The date should be printed directly on the bottle or on the label.

Depending on the manufacturer, the expiration date can be 2 to 3 years from the date it was manufactured.

Rubbing alcohol expires because isopropanol evaporates when exposed to the air, while the water remains. As a result, the percentage of isopropanol can decrease over time, making it less effective.

It’s difficult to prevent evaporation of isopropanol. Even if you keep the bottle closed most of the time, some air can still get in.

Expired rubbing alcohol will likely have a lower percentage of isopropanol compared to rubbing alcohol that hasn’t expired. Although it probably still contains some isopropanol, it may not be totally effective at killing germs and bacteria.

In some situations, using it may be better than taking no action at all.

For example, if you don’t have another household disinfectant on hand, you may use expired rubbing alcohol to clean the surfaces of your home. Bear in mind, though, that it may not kill all the germs on these surfaces.

Similarly, using expired rubbing alcohol to clean your hands may help to remove some germs, but it most likely won’t be fully effective.

You’ll want to avoid touching your face or other surfaces until you’ve had a chance to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Or, you can sanitize your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Expired rubbing alcohol can pose risks when used for medical purposes. It may be unsafe to use expired rubbing alcohol to clean your skin before an injection. Caring for a wound with expired rubbing alcohol isn’t recommended, either.

In general, the longer the rubbing alcohol has been expired, the less effective it will be. There are a few factors that can contribute to how long rubbing alcohol lasts.

  • How it’s sealed. If you leave the cap off your bottle of rubbing alcohol, isopropanol will evaporate much more quickly than if the lid is kept on.
  • Surface area. If a greater surface area of the rubbing alcohol is exposed to air — for instance, if you pour rubbing alcohol into a shallow dish — it will evaporate faster. Storing your rubbing alcohol in a tall bottle can reduce how much of it is exposed to air.
  • Temperature. Evaporation also increases with temperature. Store your rubbing alcohol in a relatively cool place to slow evaporation.

Take the following precautions when using rubbing alcohol:

  • Avoid getting rubbing alcohol in your eyes or nose. If you do, rinse the area with cool water for 15 minutes.
  • Rubbing alcohol is flammable. Keep it away from fire, sparks, electrical outlets, candles, and heat.
  • Contact a healthcare professional before using rubbing alcohol to clean serious wounds, burns, or animal bites.
  • Isopropanol can be toxic when ingested. If you’ve ingested isopropanol, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately. If it’s not an emergency, contact poison control at 800-222-1222.

If your rubbing alcohol has expired, you likely have other options on hand that can work well to clean or disinfect household surfaces or your skin.

  • For household surfaces, the CDC recommends first cleaning with soap and water, then using a regular household disinfectant product.
  • If you specifically want a disinfectant that can kill SARS-CoV-2 — the new coronavirus — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of product recommendations.
  • You can also use diluted bleach to disinfect household surfaces.
  • For your hands or body, use soap and water. When soap and water aren’t available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • While vinegar has antimicrobial properties, it’s not the most effective option for killing viruses like the new coronavirus.

Rubbing alcohol does have an expiration date, which is usually printed on the bottle or on the label.

Rubbing alcohol has a shelf life of 2 to 3 years. After that, the alcohol starts to evaporate, and it may not be as effective at killing germs and bacteria.

To be safe, it’s best to use rubbing alcohol that hasn’t expired. To disinfect your hands, you can also use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub that contains at least 70 percent isopropanol or 60 percent ethanol.