Common Uses of Surgical Spirit

Common Uses of Surgical Spirit

Surgical Spirit is used by guitarists to ‘toughen up’ soft skin on the fingertips when learning to play.

Many people of a ‘certain age’ will remember the familiar sight and smell of a bottle of purple Surgical Spirit in the bathroom or kitchen cabinet. For decades mothers and grandmothers throughout the UK used it around the home for cleaning and sterilising cuts and grazes and for home hygiene.

Surgical Spirit is sometimes called Rubbing Alcohol and in the UK is a mixture of Methyl Alcohol and Ethyl Alcohol. It contains additives to make it bitter and undrinkable. In its natural state it is a transparent liquid although it may be deliberately coloured to act as a warning and to guard against misuse.

Some common uses of Surgical Spirit are:-

  • As a popular home remedy for sterilising and hardening the skin, especially on the feet of hill walkers and runners in order to help prevent blisters
  • To ‘toughen up’ soft skin on the fingertips when learning to play stringed instruments such as guitar or cello
  • For the treatment and prevention of bed sores in patients who are bed-ridden. Surgical Spirit works by tightening, hardening and disinfecting the outer layer of skin
  • For the treatment of minor cuts and abrasions where it acts as a disinfectant leaving the skin bacteria-free
  • To clean hard surfaces in clinical environments such as hospitals and clinics
  • To disinfect equipment in clinical environments such as hospitals and clinics
  • To clean and disinfect skin prior to surgery
  • To clean and disinfect skin before giving injections
  • The addition of a little Surgical Spirit in a bed-bath acts as a mild and cooling astringent for the skin
  • To control germs and bacteria around the home

It is worth remembering that before the availability of proprietary cleaning products, our grandparents had to make use of whatever was available to them to tackle their domestic cleaning chores. As Surgical Spirit is a natural disinfectant, a little on a damp cloth was an excellent method of cleaning, reducing germs and controlling smells around the home.

Although today we have a never-ending choice of cleaning products, this simple method still provides an inexpensive and effective means of controlling germs and bacteria and keeping your home fresh and sweet-smelling. Compost and rubbish bins can be wiped inside and out with a damp cloth onto which Surgical Spirit has been applied. Work surfaces, remote controls, telephone handsets, computer keyboards and other electronic devices, many of which are breeding grounds for germs, can be rendered bacteria-free in a similar fashion. However, care must be taken to NEVER put liquid directly onto any electronic device.

Other, slightly more unusual uses of Surgical Spirit include wig dyeing using a 70% alcohol Surgical Spirit and as a preventative against blisters on the hands of windsurfers.

Surgical Spirit is highly flammable and should be stored away from sources of ignition, sparks and heat. Read the Material Safety Data Sheet before commencing work and wear appropriate protective clothing when handling.

Rich Hudson
I'm Managing Director of a leading UK chemical supplier. My company supplies most of the chemicals I blog about, you can buy them online at Chemicals.co.uk. I also keep a personal blog at RichHudson.co.uk.
Rich Hudson
Rich Hudson
Rich Hudson

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Comments

  1. Thank you! I have been trying to figure out what to use to clean my keyboard on Mac laptop. I researched & was getting more confused, between denatured alcohol, mentholated, white spirits or vinegar. You have answered my question. I will use Surgical spirit to clean under the keys..

  2. Hi, Given that surgical spirit is good for sterlising, does this extend to silver jewellery? I have bought some second had antique silver sterling earings and have searched the web trying to find the best way of sterilising them safely without damaging or corroding the earing itself. Do you know if surgical spirit would do the job safely?

    • Hi Becky,

      If you’re looking to sterilise your silver earrings boiling water should work or a very diluted household bleach solution. You only need a very small amount of bleach – literally 1-2 drops in a cup of water should do it. Be sure to give them a good rinse in water before wearing them. Surgical Spirit (also known as rubbing alcohol) will also do the trick.

  3. I have a puppy who we are trying to train to go to the toilet out side. We have had one or two accidents!
    Can I use a solution of surgical spirit on the soiled carpet to deter the puppy from toilet-ing there again?

    • Hi Mandy,

      This isn’t a common use for Surgical Spirit and I very much doubt that it would work as the chemical evaporates very quickly. It’s also worth pointing out that Surgical Spirit is flammable so using it on your carpet may actually create a fire hazard. I might be inclined to stick to more traditional methods of puppy potty training!

      Good luck!

  4. claudia says:

    can i use it surgical spirit to clean my face before a chemical peel

    • Hi Claudia,

      I can’t recommend that you use Surgical Spirit to clean your face in any circumstances. Washing your face with this chemical would likely dry out the skin and could cause cracking which would be very painful.

      If you’re looking to prepare your skin prior to a chemical peel I would consult a medical professional such as your GP or look to the company you are having the chemical peel with for advice.

  5. In France last year hubby was badly affected with an insect bite on his hand – the pharmacy there gave us “medicinal alcohol” to apply regularly which calmed and cleaned the skin, and he has been using it in this country too to ease the pain of insect bites whilst out walking. We have tried buying “medicinal alcohol ” in UK and been told Surgical spirit is the equivalent…but the bottle says not to be used on open wounds….so is it the same? If not another french trip is called for!

    • Hi Lynne,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure whether this is the same as Surgical Spirit, my advice would be to speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for insect bites.

  6. Carla Sussa says:

    Thank you. I have always used surgical spirit to clean earrings before I put them on, and on ingrown toenails (which I get a lot) after I fix them to stop them getting infected. It’s also good for drying out big nasty pimples. I just had the sales girl at the pharmacy give me a hard time about using it when I went in to buy some though.

    • Hi Carla,

      Thanks for your comment. I would strongly advise that you read the manufacturers instructions before using surgical spirit.

      I would not recommend using Surgical Spirit on your face, it is likely to dry out the skin and can cause cracking.

      Thanks

  7. Re Lynn’s query.
    The medicinal alcohol you get in France and Switzerland is, I think, almost pure Ethanol. It may also be marked “Alcool rectifiée 94%”, which is almost certainly the same as rectified spirit i.e. pure ethanol.

  8. Hi,
    can you use surgical spirit as a replacement for vodka in the recipe for Linen Water? Linen Water uses a combination of essential oils, demineralised water and vodka. It’s used as a perfumed spray when ironing clothing.
    Thanks.

    • Hi Veronica, I would be very cautious using flammable solvents and then applying heat to them whilst holding an electrical appliance. There will be a real risk of igniting the alcohol vapours.

  9. Hi
    1) Is it ok to use Surgical Spirit (methylated spirit 95% V/V, methyl salicylate 0.5% V/V, diethyl phthalate 2% V/V, castor oil 2.5% V/V) to clean my cosmetic glass bottles before I use them?
    2) is it ok to use the Surgical Spirit on a cotton wool to clean the glass dropper for the bottles? or is it better to store the SS in a spray bottle? any chemical reaction with plastic?
    3) what does V/V mean?
    Thank you.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment!

      It would probably be better to use a 70% Propan-2-ol solution as this will evaporate without leaving a residue.

      As for the meaning of V/V – here’s a post on that very subject: http://www.thechemicalblog.co.uk/what-do-vv-ww-wv-andvw-mean/

      • Thanks for your reply, Richard. Really appreciate it.
        I do have a few more questions as I am new to this:
        Does the 70% Propan-2-ol kill bacteria, yeast, fungi, mold etc?
        Would a solution like 70% Propan-2-ol react with plastic? Is it possible to transfer to a plastic squirt or spray bottle?
        Would we need to wear gloves when handling this solution as it may be too drying for the skin.
        Many thanks!

        • Not a problem, I’m glad to help!

          Propan-2-ol is particularly effective when diluted to 70% and it would be suitable to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi and mycobacteria as it deactivates bacterial spores.

          You can use a plastic spray bottle – we recommend you use high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. More on that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-density_polyethylene

          You need take care to protect yourself when handling this chemical, especially if you are intending to spray it. Avoid sources of ignition (propan-2-ol is highly flammable), ensure good ventilation to avoid build up and inhalation of vapours and make sure you use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as outlined in the Material Safety data Sheet (MSDS). This will include equipment such as nitrile gloves, respirators (this is specifically recommended if using sprays) and fume extraction.

          It’s also worth being aware of the possible health effects this chemical presents. For example, propan-2-ol poisoning leads to early somnolence and deep coma with respiratory depression as well as many other nasty effects – check the MSDS for more information.

          Finally, before handling propan-2-ol please do remember to read the MSDS thoroughly. This will provide definitive advice on appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), possible health effects and safety precautions to take when handling this chemical.

  10. Hello Richard

    Can I use surgical spirit to clean a painted wall surface before using sticky strips to hang a picture? The instructions mention cleaning the wall with rubbing alcohol which my local pharmacies do not stock. One pharmacist said that surgical spirit would leave a greasy mark whereas rubbing alcohol would not. Is he correct? If he is correct where can I obtain rubbing alcohol without buying online? Thanks for your help.

    Kind regards
    Doreen

    • Hi Doreen,

      Surgical spirit is likely to leave a greasy mark as your pharmacist advised.

      My best advice to you would be to use some hot soapy water to clean your wall, make sure you leave it to dry though before you use the sticky strips.

  11. manthomeng says:

    can the Surgical Spirits be used on the sweaty feet.
    thank you

  12. Can I use methylated spirit or surgical spirit on my head after shaving?

    • I would not recommend putting either of these chemicals on your skin, it could dry up your skin and even cause cracking. An aftershave balm or moisturising cream would be much more suitable.

  13. Hi, I have read reviews about dermaroller and am hoping to start using it. As its for my face it is said to disinfect the roller first by placing it in some surgical spirit. I wanted to knw if it is safe to use the dermaroller straight onto my face or should I rinse it after I take it out of the surgical spirit??

    • Hi Aisha,

      I would strongly recommend that you contact the manufacturer and get confirmation from them on this, if surgical spirit comes into contact with your face it could cause drying or cracking of the skin so be very careful.

  14. Hi, I have read that rubbing alcohol can be used to clean a clarinet, would surgical spirit be o.k to use on the keys and plastic body?

    Many Thanks ;-)

    • Hi Jo,

      Thanks for getting in touch – Rubbing alcohol is usually 70% Propan-2-ol which is a different blend to Surgical Spirit.

      Rubbing alcohol is safe to use with most plastics but I would advise you to test it on a small inconspicuous area first – just in case!

  15. I used an upper lip bleaching cream and now my part of my upper lip area is burnt… do you think it would be useful to use surgical spirit to clean it?

  16. Hey I was told to use surgical spirt on my face by my college tutor to remove a glue used on my face and it made my face feel like it was burning and very sore even the day after, can surgical spirit be use on the face?

    • Hi Gemma,

      I would not recommend putting surgical spirit on your skin, it can cause it to dry out or crack. I’d recommend talking to your GP if you have put surgical spirit on your face, they should be able to advise you on a treatment to soothe the burning sensation.

  17. In our church they use “Surgical Spirits” for cleaning the wine chalice during communion, after every “round”. What effect could this have on the people’s lips and on the chalice itself ? The chalice is made of silver but has been gilded on the inside.

    • Surgical spirits evaporates very quickly so it is unlikely to have an effect on people’s lips. If however it were to come into contact with your lips it could cause them to dry and crack. If you’re worried about coming into contact with Surgical Spirit, an alternative method could be to wipe with a clean cloth soaked in boiling water. As for the chalice itself, Surgical Spirit will have no effect on silver.

  18. Brian Penfold says:

    Just visited this web site looking for info on use of surgical spirit for hardening my guitar playing fingers – what a
    mind of information!! Great site

  19. Glenmoore says:

    I would like to know how safe itt is , to clean an open wound with a surgical spirit?

    Regards
    Glenmoore

  20. Georgina Kane says:

    Can I use surgical spirit to sterilise my makeup. Most makeup artists use rubbing alcohol called isopropyl? what is the difference?

    • We always recommend caution when it comes to any application of a chemical which could involve contact with skin. If you’re looking to sterilise makeup brushes we would recommend using a specialist makeup cleaning fluid or sticking to good old fashioned warm soapy water.

  21. My partner has a bottle of Surgical Spirits with an Expiry date of 04/2007. What characteristics are affected after this date and is the spirit still effective and safe to use?

    • Thank you for your comment.
      We wouldn’t recommend using Surgical Spirit after the expiry date, as any outdated chemicals can have nasty side effects.
      The best option would be to dispose of the Surgical Spirit safely and buy a new bottle in date, just to be sure.

  22. Hello – I have had pityriasis rosea for nearly 3 months now…wondering if you think this would help the healing – or maybe just stop the itchy. I,m getting desperate now.

    • Hi,

      I don’t recommend using Surgical Spirit to help your condition. You should contact a medical expert and seek advice that way, as there are always risks involved if you use any chemical directly on your skin.

      Thanks for your comment.

  23. Mientjie says:

    hi, just want to know if i could use it on my dog’s skin. It looks swollen and infected. its on the stomage area.

    • Hi
      Thanks for your comment. I can’t advise using Surgical Spirit on your dog’s skin, it may irritate the skin further.
      The safest option would be to take your dog to a vet and they should be able to provide a treatment to get your dog back to health.

      Thanks

  24. From the post I’ve read this far. I think you’re probably sitting at your keyboard wanting to say,
    ” PEOPLE DON’T USE SURGICAL SPIRIT ON YOUR SKIN.”
    However, my daughter has horrible back acne. Nothing is working and I do mean nothing, the poor kid, she’s miserable. I understand surgical spirit isn’t good for the skin because it could cause cracking, and you are going to say yet again ” I can’t or wouldn’t recommend using. it in your skin. ” But we’ve tried everything across the counter and I mean prescription from Doctors too. Yes that was plural for I think it’s 5 now. We spend tons of money on their remedies that don’t work. . Can it be diluted with something to work, desperate mom, daughter is 26 and has been fighting this for over a decade. Or if you know what will work let me know and I don’t care how crazy it is, cause we’ve tried crazy already . Thanks.

    • Hi Keri,
      I appreciate what you’re saying here. Unfortunately, the reason we continue to respond to enquiries with the same advice is that we really cannot recommend using surgical spirit.
      If you want to try it, you should speak to a medical professional first and see if they recommend trying surgical spirit.
      Apologies that we can’t give the response you’re looking for.
      Thanks

  25. Hello, I bought a Feliway to help stop cat spraying and it suggests to use 1 tsp of surgical spirits mixed in a basin of warm water to clean any areas where the cat may have already sprayed. I have never heard of this (here in Canada) but cat spray is extremely difficult to eliminate so I’m willing to give it a try but wonder if mineral spirits in the UK are the same as in Canada? Would you happen to know? Thanks

    • Hi Cheryl.
      Surgical spirit is a common method of preventing your car from spraying in the same areas. I can’t think of any reason that this method wouldn’t work in Canada, so I suggest you experiment yourself and see how it goes!
      Try marking each spot you clean so you can keep track of your progress.
      Hope this helps.

  26. shirley cat says:

    Hi, I just had my carpets cleaned and they have taken ages to dry and are now really smelly. I have used bicard on them over night and the smell is still there. I have heard rubbing alcohol will get the smell out if I pour it directly on to the carpet as it will seap down into the carpet and kill all the mold and mildew. And if I put the fan on it, it should dry quickly as it evaporates. Is this correct? Would you recommend doing this? I have three small children and don’t want to put them at risk in any way, but the smell is terrible so I really need to do something.

    • Hi Shirley,
      I wouldn’t recommend using rubbing alcohol (surgical spirit) to solve your problem as it is flammable, so using it on a carpet may cause a fire hazard.
      I suggest you contact the company that cleaned your carpet and complain that they left a nasty smell in the process. They should re-do the carpet free of charge and try to eliminate the smell, if they’re a decent enough company.
      Again, I wouldn’t use chemicals directly onto carpet, especially when children are around.
      Thanks for your comment and good luck.

  27. i used surgical spririt on my severe acne and it worked wonders
    now i dont have pimples and have little marks
    i have oily skin so surgical spririt really helped me.
    i took that advised from my niece and im happy.

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