Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol is a common household chemical usually found in the medicine cabinet. Most commonly used as an antiseptic or solvent, there are a surprising number of uses this handy, and inexpensive product has around the home or homestead. In fact, no prepper should be without a supply of isopropyl alcohol, and here are a few reasons why…
Isopropyl alcohol is an invaluable antiseptic, and commonly used in hospitals to kill germs and bacteria. Interestingly enough, you don’t want to buy 90 percent or stronger isopropyl alcohol for this purpose, but rather 70 percent strength. This is due to the physics of breaking down the cell walls of microorganisms – suffice it to say, this is one case where weaker is better.
Use isopropyl alcohol around the home to wipe down food prep surfaces, or to disinfect any area that needs to be kept clean and near sterile. You don’t want to use it for wound care, as it can actually make things worse and slow down healing.
You can also use isopropyl alcohol to sterilize medical instruments like tweezers or scissors used in first aid. It can be used as is, straight from the bottle, poured into a spray bottle to quickly disinfect a wide area, or you can even add a few drops of essential oils to the spray bottle and make a pleasant smelling disinfectant spray for far less than you’d pay for a commercial product.
Alcohol is a solvent, and we may not think of reaching for the stuff in the medicine cabinet when we need to clean up some types of messes – but we should be!
Isopropyl alcohol is great for cleaning up sticky messes from tape, sticker residue, light grease and oil contamination, and various other common yucky things that you need to dissolve before scrubbing away. Isopropyl alcohol is also great for cleaning electronics, but you’ll want to use the nearly pure stuff (I’ll talk more about 90 percent and stronger isopropyl alcohol in a minute.)
I like to put a little isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad and use that to clean oils and fingerprints off my cellphone and laptop screens. Both can accumulate a lot of oils and grime from fingers and close contact with the body, but a quick wipe down with isopropyl alcohol makes things nice and clean again!
Look around your home, and I bet you can find more ways to put this handy liquid to good use as a general purpose and safe cleaner.
Isopropyl alcohol makes a great, and inexpensive insecticide that isn’t full of weird, possibly cancer-causing chemicals.
You can use it to kill aphids, mealybugs, and other plant destroying critters. If you have ticks on a pet, dab a little isopropyl alcohol on it to make the tick release its hold. This is probably the easiest and most efficient way to remove ticks. You can also use isopropyl alcohol against other insects and even spiders.
Probably the easiest and best way to use it as an insecticide is to simply pour isopropyl alcohol straight into a spray bottle and have at it! Remember, sensitive plants may be harmed by alcohol on their leaves, and you also probably will want to use a standard 70 percent solution instead of something stronger. The bugs won’t know the difference, but your plants will.
You can also use a cotton-tipped swab as a way to carefully attack insect infestations without spraying the entire plant. Bedbugs can be repelled with an alcohol spray, and you’ll find it is also a great way to knock out irritating swarms of flies or mosquitoes with a few good spritzes into the cloud of bugs.
Yup, isopropyl alcohol makes a great fuel for cooking. You’ll want to use the high strength stuff for fuel, although you can use 70 percent in a pinch. One great thing about alcohol as a fuel is that it safe to burn indoors, and can be extinguished with water if needed – things you can’t do with most liquid cooking fuels!
Now there are a couple of ways to approach using isopropyl alcohol as a cooking fuel; you can get a small camping stove which is great for stuff like a bugout bag, or you can get a proper stove which is commonly used in boats and can be readily adapted for use off the grid.
Let’s look at both options a little closer. In the case of the small portable alcohol stove (and there are plenty of options on the market), you could use it as an everyday stove for common cooking chores, but it would get a bit bothersome after a bit. After all, this mini stoves are meant for camping, outdoor and emergency use, and often are bundled with similarly purposed cookware.
But added to a bugout bag, it’s pretty hard to beat these little stoves. Add a bottle of isopropyl alcohol to your kit, and you’ll have a reliable stove that sips fuel and will last you for a long time.
Moving on up to a full-size burner, as you can see, it is quite easy to install a proper alcohol stove into your off the grid homestead, survival cabin, or even in your RV, bugout vehicle, or boat. These stoves are built for regular use, and like any decent alcohol stove, are surprisingly fuel efficient. You’ll probably want to buy denatured alcohol in larger containers for these stoves though.
Now alcohol burns at a cooler temperature than other fuels, so it takes a bit longer to cook food, but all of that is negligible compared to the safety and convenience of cooking with alcohol as a fuel. And if everything goes to heck, you could even distill your own fuel from fruit and vegetable waste!
While alcohol lamps are more commonly used for scientific and jewelry making purposes, they do also serve as a form of light. I’ve always been torn on these – there are better lights out there, and even some candles will do better. On the other hand, if you just want a small localized light, it makes sense to keep a couple of these around that burn the same fuel as your emergency stove.
To me, the main value of an alcohol lamp comes from being able to use a common fuel and as a candle substitute. As far as I know, they aren’t in common use among preppers and homesteaders, simply because there are better options. But they remain a viable choice for lighting, and certainly, it can’t hurt to keep a couple around in your cupboard as redundant backups, or as an alternative to candles and kerosene.
So Just What Is Isopropyl Alcohol?
I asked my chemist friend what exactly this stuff is, and got a great reply that mostly went over my head. I’m a historian and writer, and while I can expound on the complex issues around say early transcontinental railroads, a lot of chemistry is beyond me. Suffice it to say, isopropyl alcohol is a kind of alcohol with some extra carbon atoms. Or something like that.
What we care about is the fact that it is cheap, readily available and useful for everything from first aid to cooking fuel. Naturally, you should never drink it, or try to make it safe to drink. It should not be confused with denatured alcohol, which usually starts out as some sort of safe to drink alcohol made unsafe through added chemicals.
If you are so inclined, you can find more complex chemical information online with a simple search. It probably won’t change how you use isopropyl alcohol, but I certainly understand wanting to know exactly what it is you are working with and how it works on a fundamental, chemical level. Heck, you might even make better use of it once you understand it better.
The two (ok three really) main reasons I keep isopropyl alcohol around is as an emergency fuel, and for basic disinfectant purposes. I also use it as a solvent, but that is a distant third and involves the never-ending debate on if you should use it to clean the stem of your smoking pipe or not. But I can attest to the solvent qualities of isopropyl alcohol in that and other contexts.
For me, the greatest value beyond first aid and cleaning is as a fuel. You may prioritize differently. I imagine if I had a bug problem, I’d value the stuff even more. Because it is cheap and has a basically unlimited shelf life, (keep it in an airtight container – it will attract water and lose potency as it dilutes with the absorbed water) it is a great prepper supply. You could easily acquire all you’ll ever need for a modest investment.
No matter how you use it, there is literally no reason not to have a supply of isopropyl alcohol on hand in your home and in your emergency supplies. It is really one of the best-forgotten prepper supplies out there.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.