Rubbing Alcohol vs. Hydrogen Peroxide

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 27, 2021
3 min read

Are you familiar with rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide? They’re not advertised much. They’re simple, inexpensive liquids that sit quietly on pharmacy or supermarket shelves until they manage to make their way into a new household hint or hack on the web. 

There are times when it’s best to use one and not the other. But one benefit they both share is that they can be used as antiseptics. 

They're antiseptics — germ killers — which people started using back in the mid-1800s to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Frequent handwashing has reduced the spread of germs in the modern world, but antiseptics are still doing their part. Rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are two of the most common.

Rubbing alcohol is good for killing bacteria such as E. coli and staph. Rubbing alcohol can kill them within 10 seconds. 

Hydrogen peroxide is another antiseptic, or disinfectant, that kills viruses and various forms of bacteria. But it needs more time than rubbing alcohol does to kill germs. It needs up to 5 minutes to do its job. 

Rubbing alcohol works well:

During surgery. Rubbing alcohol, that is, 70% to 90% isopropyl alcohol, is commonly used for disinfecting germs and viruses in surgical settings. The CDC and FDA have determined rubbing alcohol to be safe and effective for operations on people’s skin. 

To disinfect objects. Rubbing alcohol can effectively disinfect objects such as thermometers and other shared objects that are known to attract bacteria. You can also use rubbing alcohol to sterilize door handles and other surfaces‌.

Rubbing alcohol has been approved by the CDC to kill the COVID-19 virus. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer is safe to use on your hands. Be sure the alcohol is at least 70% isopropyl to effectively kill the virus. 

Harshness. Rubbing alcohol on its own can be harsh on the finishes of objects you apply it to. Depending on the item, it may cause damage to whatever you're trying to sterilize. It’s especially harmful to shellac, rubber, and plastic.    

And it’s best to not try to disinfect large areas of your body with rubbing alcohol. It can damage your skin cells. Better leave that use to surgical professionals, who know how to use it without causing harm‌.  

Flammability. If items soaked in alcohol make contact with a heat source, they can burst into flame. Only use and store rubbing alcohol in a well-ventilated area.  

‌Poison. Make sure you keep your rubbing alcohol out of reach of children. Rubbing alcohol is colorless, and they may think it is water. But it is poisonous.

You should seek immediate medical attention for anyone who has swallowed rubbing alcohol. 

Hydrogen peroxide works well on:

Wounds.Hydrogen peroxide is commonly used for cleaning out a fresh sore. It’s OK if you use it for small scrapes or cuts. If there's dirt in the sore, the bubbles in hydrogen peroxide can help flush it out.

Objects. A 3% hydrogen peroxide solution, which is what you’ll find in the store, works well on many surfaces. Remember to use clean water to rinse or wipe off anything that you've applied hydrogen peroxide to. 

Harshness. Don’t apply hydrogen peroxide to large, open wounds. It can easily damage the skin. 

Effect on healing. Hydrogen peroxide works by killing all bacteria. So it's also killing germs that help your healing process along. 

Effectiveness. If you store it in a dark, cool space for a long time, you'll find that it stays powerful. Still, hydrogen peroxide is not as effective generally as other antiseptics can be. 

Both rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide have their uses as antiseptics. However, the best way to clean out your cuts and scrapes is with soap and water. 

When you have an open wound that doesn't require medical attention, running a soapy washcloth over it and then rinsing, sometimes a few times per day, will work fine. You can also get in the bath and let warm water run over your wound to clean it out. 

You may find rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide useful to keep on hand at home. But they shouldn't be your go-to DIY antiseptic.