In the UK, rubbing alcohol typically refers to isopropyl alcohol (IPA) diluted with distilled water. It less-commonly refers to diluted ethyl alcohol (ethanol).
Rubbing alcohol is not routinely sold in supermarkets and shops but is available for purchase across the UK. You can buy rubbing alcohol in the UK both in-store and online, at pharmacies, chemists, hobby electronics suppliers, tattoo supply shops and parlours, chemical suppliers, trade shops and auction sites.
Personal (non-industrial) quantities of rubbing alcohol are not legally restricted although imports from abroad may be subject to UK restrictions.
4 Places Where Rubbing Alcohol Can Be Bought In The UK
1. Tattoo Supply Shops
Each tiny needle at the tip of a tattooist’s needle gun can pierce skin up to 3,000 holes per second! While this can create incredible tattoos, it also creates a massive risk of infection. To fight this risk, tattooists use rubbing alcohol before, during and after the procedure.
According to section 3 of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s tattoo toolkit, two specific cleaning agents are recommended: 70% concentrated isopropyl alcohol (single use) OR 0.5% chlorhexidine in 70% alcohol (single use).
As such, rubbing alcohol can often be purchased at tattoo shops/parlours and tattoo supply stores, both online and in-person. Often, tattooists will recommend aftercare products to apply to the tattooed skin – these are often creams, sprays and liquids that are formulated to ward off infection, control pigment bleeding and promote good healing.
2. Chemical Suppliers
There are estimated to be over 3,500 chemical suppliers located in the UK. Many supply their wares to businesses only, but some UK-based chemical manufacturers may be willing to sell rubbing alcohol to the UK public.
Small, individual quantities of isopropyl alcohol for personal use are not restricted. According to official British government regulations, things only get legally tricky if you: produce your own rubbing alcohol without a license or buy, store or sell over 20 litres of rubbing alcohol, without the correct paperwork and license.
Having less than 20 litres of isopropyl rubbing alcohol is completely legal; you do not need a permit or need to notify HMRC
3. Trade Shops (Builders Merchants)
Trade shops sell specialised products to tradespeople (electricians, builders, plumbers, roofers etc.) – many UK trade shops are not trade-only and allow members of the general public to buy from them.
The quality of trade shop items can be slightly higher than the average supermarket. Plus, you can often get discounts for buying in bulk, even in small quantities! Some, but not all, UK trade shops will sell rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol).
It’s often better to look for trade isopropyl alcohol online before visiting a branch in person. Unlike normal supermarkets, trade shops often move items between branches for individual customer orders.
If you want a single bottle of IPA and it’s out of stock at your nearest branch, they’ll probably be able to coordinate its delivery from another branch, often in a day or less!
4. Online eCommerce & Auction Sites
It’s often easier to buy rubbing alcohol online in the UK. There are significantly more online eCommerce stores that will deliver to UK addresses than there are physical stores.
If you need to buy rubbing alcohol quickly, some online shops offer super-fast delivery times to urban areas. For example, Amazon Prime members may be able to get rubbing alcohol delivered on the same day in the UK.
Be careful though; while many international shops state that they are willing to ship isopropanol alcohol to the UK quickly, they often massively underestimate delivery times. If you want rubbing alcohol delivered quickly, order from a UK-based website.
You may also find new and second-hand isopropyl rubbing alcohol listed on auction sites. Buying rubbing alcohol in this way is perfectly legal, although the sender may have to apply additional safety warning labels to the item’s packaging.
Always follow UK laws and check your chosen postal carriers’ terms of service before sending rubbing alcohol through the delivery network.
What Is Rubbing Alcohol Called In The UK? (Other Names)
The following terms are synonyms for rubbing alcohol in the UK. These alternative terms for rubbing alcohol are roughly ordered from more common to less common:
- Rubbing Alcohol
- Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA)
- Surgical Spirit (can also refer to methyl salicylate)
- Isopropanol Alcohol
- Spirit Alcohol
What Is Rubbing Alcohol?
It has a noticeable odour. Some people describe the smell as “like acetone” and “chemical-like”.
It’s often referred to as “surgical spirit”.
In cleaning, rubbing alcohol can be applied to stainless steel (including brushed stainless steel), plastic laminate, sealed marble, painted/varnished wood, laminate
The History Behind Rubbing Alcohol
Humans should never consume isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol); drinking rubbing alcohol is dangerous, but that hasn’t put people off in the past. Isopropyl alcohol was first synthesised in 1920 by two American chemists. It was the first ever synthetic alcohol but a novel issue soon appeared: some people were drinking the isopropyl alcohol (IPA), unaware of its toxicity and danger to human health.
From 1920 to 1927, rubbing alcohols were sold across the USA without mandatory health labels warning people against consumption. When isopropyl alcohol is consumed, the body tries to excrete it as quickly as possible. The liver breaks isopropyl alcohol down into acetone, the same chemical used as nail varnish remover.
Rubbing Alcohol Laws In The UK
The Iso-Propyl Alcohol Regulations 1927(5) was the first legal restriction imposed on rubbing alcohol in the UK. Even today, British companies that buy, produce or sell more than 20 litres of isopropyl alcohol need a denatured alcohol licence from HMRC.
Can You Use Normal Alcohol As Rubbing Alcohol?
Generally, no! Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, which does have some similar properties to Isopropyl rubbing alcohol. However, boozy beverages almost always contain additional ingredients such as sugars, chemical flavourings or carbon dioxide.
You should not use normal alcohol as a rubbing alcohol replacement for home clothes washing and laundry as it may stain, weaken or add unwanted odour to your clothing.
In a pinch, some alcoholic drinks could be used as a makeshift cleaning replacement for isopropyl alcohol. However, you’ll probably find that it’s safer, easier and more effective to use a product specifically formulated for whichever surface you’re cleaning.
The extra ingredients in alcohol may have absolutely zero disinfecting abilities and could be harmful. Some nasty pathogens, and most bacteria, love sugar more than humans. If sugar gets into the bloodstream, through a cut, wound or spot in the skin, it could promote infection.
Additionally, unfiltered and unpasteurised alcohols will contain the remnants of some yeast, leftover from the brewing process.
For example, many ciders contain traces of Saccharomyces yeast. Approximately 25% of natural wines may contain lactic acid bacteria, while 51% of unfiltered wines were found to still contain living yeast!
Using Vodka Instead Of Rubbing Alcohol
One exception is using distilled spirits, especially vodka, to remove stains and smells from clothing. Some people suggest using high-strength, clear-coloured distilled spirits as rubbing alcohol alternatives. Always use common sense:
- Do NOT use white spirit instead of rubbing alcohol
- Do NOT use methylated spirit instead of rubbing alcohol
- Do NOT use drinking alcohol (ethanol) to clean wounds
- Do NOT apply drinking alcohol