One of my favorite and most used tricks is to use rubbing alcohol in the craft studio. It’s cheap, available, and it just plain works wonders. Read on to see why I like it so much.
Why use rubbing alcohol with polymer clay?
- Rubbing alcohol removes polymer clay residue from hands, tools, and work surfaces.
- It dissolves alcohol ink and can be used to create designs with it.
- Isopropyl alcohol can be used to remove dried varnish from brushes or baked polymer clay.
- Q-tips dipped in alcohol can smooth the surface of polymer clay before baking, removing lint and debris.
- Used in a spray bottle, it makes work space clean-up easier.
- Rubbing alcohol is also known as isopropyl alcohol.
- It’s a common solvent that has many uses with polymer clay.
- In the US, you can buy rubbing alcohol in any pharmacy.
- Outside the US, you can often order isopropyl alcohol online.
What is Rubbing Alcohol?
The most readily available and reasonably priced alcohol is isopropyl alcohol. Also known as rubbing alcohol, you can find this in the first aid section of any pharmacy, grocery, or discount store in the US. It generally comes in concentrations ranging between 70 and 91% isopropyl alcohol and water. A small amount of a bittering agent is added just to make sure nobody takes a swig.
Outside of the US, rubbing alcohol can sometimes include other chemicals so to be sure try to get the kind that says it’s “isopropyl alcohol”. Outside the US, you can usually buy isopropyl alcohol online, or go to the chemist (pharmacist) in more specialized stores and you should be able to find or order it. Also check electronics stores. In the UK, Maplin (an electronics retailer) sells 99% isopropyl alcohol.
(An aside here for UK readers. Contrary to what I’ve been told, surgical spirit is not the same thing. Surgical spirit will work to an extent, but it also contains aromatic oils that can make things greasy and prevent paint from sticking. When I finally got my hands on some, I could see right off it’s not the same thing at all.)
Isopropanol is toxic when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed though the skin in large doses, so you don’t want to be bathing in it. (Drinking about 20 ml (4 tsp) at once would be toxic to give you an idea.) But it is relatively non-toxic when compared to other solvents such as acetone or methanol. It also evaporates quickly and leaves little residue, which makes it quite useful for industrial and yes, craft uses.
Isopropyl alcohol is a solvent that dissolves many oils, glues, and various sticky things that you’re going to encounter in an art studio or craft room. The same properties that make isopropanol excellent for cleaning electronic equipment make it fantastic prep for getting a grease-free surface prior to painting. It does a lot of the same things that acetone does, but is much less toxic and won’t ruin your manicure.
Rubbing Alcohol with Alcohol Inks
Alcohol inks such as the brand names of Ranger Adirondack and Pinata are made from dye dissolved in alcohol. Because of that, rubbing alcohol will also dissolve the colors. I use rubbing alcohol to dilute and thin alcohol inks much in the same way that you would use water to work with watercolors. It also will dissolve and clean up any spills on non-porous surfaces.
You can use rubbing alcohol to clean your brushes and tools, too. It also works well to thin and clean up after alcohol markers such as Copic, Prismacolor, and Spectrum Noir. And because Sharpie is a dye-based marker, you can “erase” the marks with rubbing alcohol as well. (More on which pens I recommend using on polymer clay here!)
Polymer clay with Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol will dissolve polymer clay, so it makes a fantastic cleaner for your hands, your tools, and your work surface. An alcohol-soaked paper towel makes cleaning your pasta machine much nicer. I always use alcohol to wipe down my tissue blades after using them with polymer clay.
You can remove the fingerprints from unbaked clay by smoothing it with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. The alcohol will slightly dissolve the clay and any marks will be erased. It’s best for single colored clay areas, though. The colors in a patterned area will smear.
If you’re going to paint your cured polymer clay or give it a coat of varnish or sealer, you might find it helpful to give your cured clay a wipe-down with some rubbing alcohol on a paper towel. It will remove surface oils or residue that the clay has. Some brands of clay (such as Pardo and Kato) are known for having surfaces which cure with an oil and/or waxy residue. Isopropyl alcohol will remove it.
Rubbing Alcohol in a Spray Bottle
On my work table I always have a spray bottle filled with 91% isopropyl alcohol. I prefer the higher concentration of alcohol because the 70% variety is 30% water and that doesn’t evaporate as quickly. I get mine at WalMart in a quart bottle for a couple of dollars. This stuff is very inexpensive!
If I have to clear a large area I’ll use it directly from the bottle, but most of the time I use a small spray bottle. By the way, do you know what’s one of the best sources of spray bottles with a dripless, fine spray? I love using travel size hair spray bottles! There is no leaking, it sprays in a fine mist, and it’s cheap. I typically just pour out the hair spray (I don’t use it), rinse both the bottle and the pump thoroughly, and fill the bottle with rubbing alcohol. I do make sure that I label it correctly, though. I have similar bottles with water and mold release on my work table and yes, I have grabbed the wrong bottle!
Every time I clean my work table surface, I use this spray bottle of rubbing alcohol. It dissolves all sorts of fingerprints off clay, bits of paint from tile, gunk from stickers and tape.
Another neat thing you can do with a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol goes back to the alcohol inks. Make a design with alcohol inks on a non-porous surface such as a ceramic tile or glass. Once the ink dries, it is waterproof. But you can, of course remove it with alcohol. But if you spray alcohol on the surface, it makes crazy designs in the ink! Totally fun.
A couple more thoughts. Hand sanitizer will work to dissolve clay from your hands and tools, but it does leave a residue from the gel. It’s not much and some brands have more of an issue than others. But for this reason I prefer to use the plain isopropyl alcohol. Also, any alcohol dissolves oils, including body oils, and may leave your hands a bit worse for wear. Make sure you use a good hand lotion when you’re done working.
Oh! I almost forgot this one! When you use epoxy resin, it tends to be pretty messy. The uncured resin is hard to get off your hands because soap and water will not work. But alcohol does! Yippee! In short, if you’ve got an issue with something sticky or difficult to remove in the art studio, give rubbing alcohol a shot. It won’t fix everything, but just often enough, it is pure magic.
This article is part of my Indispensable Tool Series, an ongoing series of articles where I talk about the various tools and materials that are indispensable in my polymer clay studio.
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34 thoughts on “Using Rubbing Alcohol with Crafts”
Hi Ginger, I’ve been doing clay for a couple of years with (and without) alcohol inks. Now I’m doing a bit of painting with them, a whole new group of artists…who are all warning me about repirators and toxic fumes and dangerous levels of toxicity from alcohol, period. I came running over here to the ‘master’ who knows chemistry and I see no such warnings. What’s the deal on this? I hate to spend money on equipment I don’t need.
Alcohol is toxic. But toxins are always defined by dose. For the tiny amounts we use in polymer clay, it’s not a big deal. But if you’re using it as your main art medium, I can see where you might breathe in enough to cause some issues.
I just stumbled onto your site trying to find the best brand of rubbing alcohol to buy (I’m in the UK, where we’re all treated like children and our essential craft purchases are restricted!) I’ve read lots of reviews about various brands and would like to get my purchase right first time. So, can you please advise the best concentration and recommend a brand for cleaning glasses, mugs etc prior to applying vinyl (oh, and I have a vintage Passat Duomatic knitting machine to strip down and clean. Will probably get it from Amazon (lovely to see your mention of Maplin, but sadly they went bust a few years ago ). Thank you in advance for your help.
Here in the US, we do just fine with 70% or 91%, so I don’t think the concentration matters a whole lot.
I’ve fallen into what I call a ‘Blue Bottle Tree hole’ – where I read an article, then the linked article and then another linked article …so on and on and on! I always come back to your site it’s such a great resource – Thank you!
Question – I use isopropanol with my alcohol inks on yupo paper then blow around with a straw for some pretty effects – I was wondering if I can do the same on white or translucent Pclay? Is it safe to bake ?
Yes, you can. The inks will stain the raw clay very strongly, so you have to move fast. And the alcohol dries out the surface of the clay if you do very much so you will get some nifty crackle effects. Baking isn’t a problem. The alcohol evaporates and the dye it leaves behind is perfectly safe in the oven. Some colors will change with longer bakes and high heat, though. On baked clay, it’s a lot like doing it on Yupo. Experiment!
Hi Ginger, just bought your Sanding and Buffing tutorial and reading through. I live in Israel and rubbing alcohol is not readily available. The pharmacies usually sell 70% alcohol. Online I can find 99.8% isopropyl. Would that be to concentrated for polymer clay needs? Or should it work alright?
Either will work just fine. I like to use 91% because it’s what we have here, but use what you have. 🙂
Thanks Ginger. Just one question. I’m just getting started on making polymer clay earrings (bought your tutorial which is great!). I just wondered if there is any difference between rubbing alcohol and acetone? Some makers seem to use acetone to clean up finger prints and get rid of embedded lint etc on their pieces. Is rubbing alcohol basically the same stuff? I’m definitely going to start using rubbing alcohol for cleaning tools just wasn’t sure if it’s also necessary to buy acetone? Thanks from the UK! Kathryn 🙂
No, they’re not the same thing. Rubbing alcohol is a bit like strong vodka. Surgical spirits are similar (but not identical). It will dissolve raw clay but not baked clay. Acetone, on the other hand, is a much stronger solvent that is the active ingredient in nail polish remover. It dissolves both raw and baked clay. For cleaning tools, I’d use rubbing alcohol, not acetone. Acetone can dissolve plastics.
Hi from France !
I do love your articles because I am always afraid to mix the wrong thing with clay and have unexpected problems after weeks or even months.
It is quite hard to find Isopropyl Alcohol where I live, I can get it online but before ordering, i was wondering if I could use what I actually can purchase easily :
Here we have (in pharmacies) either :
– Alcool modifié 90 %, made of Alcohol, Aqua, Acetone, ans isopropyl alcohol. (not pure)
– Alcool modifié 70 %, made of ethanol.
Are they polymer-clay compatible, or will I ruin my creations with it ?
I use the 70% to clean my hands or my blades, and to clean my UV resin when cured, and it is ok.
But I would hate to ruin hours of work if they are not clay compatible !
Thanks in advance for your answer 😀
Yes, you can use 90%. It is very difficult to find any sort of alcohol anywhere in the world right now because of the pandemic.
Thank you so much for your answer 😀 !
Yes we have been missing alcohol during a few weeks but eventually it got better.
Thanks again 😀 !
Just to let you know surgical spirit here in the UK is not the same as rubbing alcohol in the U.S.
Surgical Spirit is usually a mixture of castor oil and methyl salicylate and does not work for alcohol ink dilution or on polymer clay either. We have to buy isopropyl alcohol and that is the correct item for the uses you mention. Hope that clears things up. It took me alot of research and internet surfing to discover this after wrongly buying surgical spirit as advised by someone else.
Hi Chrissy, thank you for explaining. I wrote this before I had explored this issue, in person, in the UK. I have used surgical spirit to clean brushes and to thin alcohol inks on clay, so I know that it does work in a pinch. I didn’t know about the castor oil in surgical spirit, but the main carrier (95% of the bottle) is methanol (methyl alcohol), so it will work to dissolve and thin alcohol soluble things. (And methyl salicylate is an aspirin derivative for pain relief.) But you’re right that getting isopropyl alcohol is a better option. I was told that you can’t buy it in the UK, which is nonsense. You do have to ask the chemist, and not all stores will have it. I wouldn’t go to Superdrug expecting to find it next to the sticking plasters!:) Thanks for giving me a chance to revisit this.
I use alcohol for cleaning up my clay and inks too. I swipe my blades just before trying to do fine slicing of canes, it seems to make things to easier and cleaner.
I also went into a beauty supply store and purchased the pump bottle that nail salons use; you fill it with alcohol, then you can put a paper towel or cotton pad on the top and press down a few times, and it pumps the alcohol up into the pad. I seem to run out of my spray bottle of alcohol too fast!
Thanks Ginger for so many wonderful tips and informational bits.
That is such a good idea. I’ve seen those pumps before and I might have to look into it. Thanks!
Thank you Ginger for this tip 🙂
I will have to buy a new bottle as my old one which has sat in the cupboard unused in 15 years was umm how we say gone 🙂 it was half full when put in the cupboard all those years ago 🙂 and I thought yeappy have a reason to use up the last of it at last 🙂 oh well will get a new bottle when I go shopping later this week 🙂
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Being a nurse, I have alcohol prep pads left in my pockets at the end of the day. I’ve used these for quick clay clean ups and they are great.
Just a note…20mL is not 1/3 of a cup, it is about 4 teaspoons. Lethal dose in the average adult is about 250mL, which is very close to one cup.
And I do know that, too. Eh…that’s what I get for doing it in my head and having kids underfoot. I’ll change that, thank you. I did look for the lethal dose and didn’t find it, so thank you for that piece of info. What I did find was that 15g dose per 70kg human is toxic. I very roughly translated that to 20 ml (lighter than H20). But yes, 5ml is a teaspoon so 20ml is 4 tsp. I was just trying to put it into perspective that this isn’t a highly toxic material that requires gloves and a respirator. The toxicity is to be respected, but not feared.
I always use Alcohol for cleaning my pasta machine and other tools.
I also use Alcohol for cleaning white polymer clay sheet. It easy way to clean white polymer clay sheet when become messy/dirty.
When I use paint brush for alcohols inks, I clean it with Alcohol. But I have never used for dilute Alcohol ink. Its make sense, but I did not know that.
Thanks for sharing ideas and tips. When you working with polymer clay tips is everything.
I intend to buy alcohol markers Spectrum Noir. Do you have any experience with that?
I do have some Spectrum Noir markers and some Copic, too. I like the Copic better because one end is a brush tip whereas the Spectrum Noir’s larger tip is a chisel point tip. But Copic are very expensive, making Spectrum Noir a better choice for me. I’ve not been disappointed in the quality of them at all. I’ve not used very many of them yet, though. I will do that later.
I also mix acrylic paints with alcohol to spray on paper and fabrics. It dries quickly and spreads thinly. Food coloring and alcohol mixed with rice or pastas colors them nicely without the rice/pasta taking on water. A cation with polymer peices- in my early days I tried to soak off a gloss which, although water based, still remained gummy on my pieces. The alcohol caused the clay itself to lose integrity. Alcohol is awesome for sooo many things. Also, I have found that, most lotions will remove clay by themselves- I anly turn to alcohol on my hands for stubborn reds or greens!
Thank you Heather, that’s some great information. I’m not a fan of lotion on my hands in general because it gets on everything I touch. But I do use it after claying. And I love your idea about mixing with acrylic paints. It does make a good thinner for so many things. I’ll keep that in mind about the soaked piece of clay getting crumbly. It will bet long term it’s terrible, but a quick wipe hasn’t had a problem yet. But then all brands are different, so who knows. It’s something to watch for, certainly.
Thanks again, Ginger, for your wonderful posts! Yet again, extremely informative 🙂
My 99% alcohol is indeed my best friend in the studio, but I’d never considered “making” art with it, Ginger. An eye-opener!
Good, I’m glad you’ve got some inspiration then! I swear, I use alcohol for everything. Try it with mica powder. It’s magic.
Ginger – when you use the alcohol and mica powder, are you using it like a paint on raw clay?
The mica powder will disperse and swirl around when alcohol is added. So if you put mica powder on clay and then add alcohol, it causes the mica to float around for a while and then settle in the low places. It makes for some interesting textural enhancements.
Good article! Thank you!
Never thought to clean my pasta blades with alcohol but going to do that right now!!
I use two kinds of blades. One…a thick chisel blade that’s fairly dull. It just gets wiped every once in a while. But my tissue blade that are used for making thin slices? Those I always, always clean them each and every time. I learned from working in labs that a dirty blade gets dull faster because the “dirt” attracts moisture and causes corrosion, dulling the blade.
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