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What Are the Uses of Isopropyl Alcohol?

Hand sanitizer containing isopropyl alcohol.
Isopropyl alcohol can be added to DNA samples for easier viewing under a microscope.
Isopropyl alcohol.
Isopropyl alcohol is used in DNA extraction.
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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2014
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Isopropyl alcohol, also known by its common name of rubbing alcohol, is a flammable chemical compound with dozens of practical uses. Numerous household uses of isopropyl alcohol include antibacterial first aid cleanser and disinfectant applications, as well as glue and stain removal and the cleaning of delicate electronic devices. Manufacturing and industrial sectors use isopropyl alcohol for industrial solvents and fuel additives. Medical and scientific uses of isopropyl alcohol include use in DNA extraction, as a specimen preservative, and as a solvent for petroleum-based products.

As a solvent, isopropyl alcohol dissolves petroleum or oil-based products, as well as many non-polar compounds. Since the chemical makeup of isopropyl alcohol is a simple carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen combination, it is typically non-toxic and thus safe in many environments. Quick evaporation is also a beneficial feature, making isopropyl alcohol a favored cleanser for sensitive electronic or robotic equipment in manufacturing facilities. Removing hydraulic fluid, motor oil, and bearing grease are just a few of the industrial uses of isopropyl alcohol.

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Domestic uses of isopropyl alcohol are abundant, with most homes keeping a bottle of rubbing alcohol as a medicine cabinet staple. Minor scraps can be disinfected with isopropyl alcohol, as well as disinfecting skin prior to needle pricks or injections for diabetics and similar patients. Like industrial applications, sensitive home electronics such as compact disc players, video game consoles, computer peripherals, and various optical disc drives can be safely cleaned with rubbing alcohol. Glue residue from labels and price tags, as well as smudges and smears on mobile phones and other personal electronics can also be easily tackled with isopropyl alcohol.

Hospitals, doctor's offices, and other medical facilities typically stock disinfectant wipes soaked in isopropyl alcohol for use prior to injections, drawing blood, or otherwise piercing the skin for medical testing. Additionally, medical uses of rubbing alcohol include DNA extraction. After spinning DNA samples — a process known as centrifuging — isopropyl alcohol is added to cause the DNA molecules to separate into pellets for easier examination under a microscope. Other biological specimens such as organs and tissues can be preserved in rubbing alcohol rather than formaldehyde, especially when maintaining safety and non-toxicity is important.

While isopropyl alcohol has many uses as an independent compound, it is also used in the production of other products. For example, facial cleansers, cosmetics, astringents, household cleaners, perfumes, and some pharmaceuticals contain isopropyl alcohol. Certain personal care products, such as waterless hand sanitizer, contain rubbing alcohol as a primary ingredient. Lacquers, products intended as fuel additives to remove water from gasoline, and even some color dyes also contain isopropyl alcohol in varying quantities.

Although used in a variety of settings, products, and applications, overexposure to isopropyl alcohol by way of direct contact with skin, inhalation, or ingestion has been linked to health problems. Symptoms of overexposure include dizziness and nausea, as well as skin irritation. Typically, only extensive exposure, such as that experienced by those working in medical or industrial environments, results in significant health issues.

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