One quick look at the ingredient labels for over-the-counter (OTC) astringents and toners made for acne-prone skin will likely reveal that most of these products contain some amount of alcohol in them. This might make you wonder whether it’s more useful (and less expensive) to just skip the specialty products and use straight-up rubbing alcohol for your acne breakouts.

While rubbing alcohol can help clear up pimples to some degree, this method isn’t designed for long-term use because of its side effects and lack of scientific backing.

The scientific logic behind this remedy

Rubbing alcohol is just one of the many home remedies discussed on the internet for acne. Before you reach for rubbing alcohol from your medicine cabinet, it’s important to first understand the science behind this ingredient.

Isopropyl is the technical term for alcohol. It’s relatively inexpensive and widely available at your local drugstore, usually located in the first aid aisle. Most OTC rubbing alcohol has 70 percent isopropyl, the rest is made up of water or oils.

Inherently, rubbing alcohol can fight bacteria and other harmful microbes. Such effects make rubbing alcohol and other alcohol-containing ingredients essential for cleaning wounds and disinfecting surfaces. Alcohol is also a key ingredient in many hand sanitizers.

Still, its potential is just one part of the keys to understanding rubbing alcohol. When the alcohol comes into contact with your skin, it disinfects it by breaking down bacteria. This includes all types — not just the harmful ones. Alcohol also evaporates quickly, which makes the substance ideal for injection prep and other medical uses.

Does it work?

In theory, the antibacterial and antimicrobial effects of rubbing alcohol could be helpful for acne treatment. This is especially the case for inflammatory acne, which is often caused by P. acnes bacteria. Inflammatory breakouts consist of nodules, papules, and pustules, as well as hard-to-get-rid-of cysts.

Rubbing alcohol likely won’t work in the same way for noninflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads). This type of acne is not caused by bacteria and other organisms. Blackheads and whiteheads are caused by clogged pores. Still, the drying effects of alcohol could dry out dead skin cells, which, in theory, might reduce the incidence of clogged pores.

The downside to using strong disinfecting ingredients like rubbing alcohol for acne is that there’s little scientific proof backing such methods. Human studies are needed to properly assess the effects of rubbing alcohol to determine whether this is a helpful form of acne treatment.

One comprehensive review of acne treatments for young adult women with acne vulgaris noted various OTC and prescription active ingredients as being helpful for acne, such as benzoyl peroxide. The review also looked at essential oils, such as eucalyptus and jojoba. There was no mention, however, of rubbing alcohol alone as an effective acne treatment.

Another clinical review looked at antibacterials for the treatment of acne, among other active ingredients. The authors noted that antibacterials such as prescription retinoids would be helpful for mild-to-moderate cases of acne.

How to use it

Before using rubbing alcohol on your face, make sure that you select an isopropyl alcohol that’s no more than 70 percent ethanol. While it’s available at the drugstore in 90-percent-alcohol formulas, this is much too strong for your skin, and totally unnecessary. Ideally, you should start at a lower percentage to see if this does the trick without over-drying your skin.

Since rubbing alcohol is a relatively strong product, you can also dilute it with a carrier oil, such as olive oil. Another option is tea tree oil, which is a known remedy for acne. Combine equal parts before applying.

It’s also a good idea to do a patch test before applying pure rubbing alcohol, or your own diluted oils, to your face. Apply first to a small area of your arm and then wait at least a full day to see if any reactions occur. If no side effects are noted, then it’s most likely safe to use on your face.

To use rubbing alcohol for acne:

  1. First, cleanse your face with your normal face wash and pat skin to dry.
  2. Apply a small amount of rubbing alcohol to a cotton ball.
  3. Gently pat the cotton ball around the pimple(s) you’re trying to get rid of. A cotton swab can also help make this process more precise, if you prefer.
  4. Allow the rubbing alcohol to dry, and then follow up with your routine serum, moisturizer, and sunscreen.
  5. Do this once a day to start. As your skin becomes more tolerant of rubbing alcohol, you can repeat for up to three times each day.

Possible side effects

Although rubbing alcohol is technically safe for your skin, it’s not intended for long-term use. Side effects can include:

  • redness
  • dryness
  • flaking
  • itchiness
  • peeling
  • pain

Such effects may also be worse if you have sensitive skin.

Rubbing alcohol may make your acne worse. When your skin is dried out from these types of substances, your sebaceous glands respond by making even more oil. This excessive amount of oil, or sebum, can create unintentional acne breakouts. Redness, peeling, and flaking also tends to make acne breakouts more noticeable.

Overly dry skin can also result in more dead skin cells lurking on the surface of your skin, which can clog your pores and lead to whiteheads and blackheads. Overall, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using acne products that are alcohol-free to reduce these types of complications.

The bottom line

Rubbing alcohol is just one potential acne-fighting ingredient. Still, there’s not enough evidence about the efficacy or safety of this product. If you need to dry up a pimple fast, try more proven ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid, another OTC acne ingredient, can also help get rid of skin cells and oil that’s clogging up your pores. This is a more preferable treatment for blackheads and whiteheads.

If you continue to have acne breakouts despite home treatment with OTC products and home remedies, it may be time to see a dermatologist. They can evaluate your skin and recommend a combination of treatments, including prescription versions if needed. You’ll also want to see your dermatologist if you have any side effects from rubbing alcohol that aren’t improving within a week.