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Panel: Steve Risotto
Media: Sarah Scruggs

A well-equipped medicine cabinet starts with solvents.

Solvents are used in hundreds of pharmaceutical products, many of which are found in our homes. In fact, some of the products found in our medicine cabinets are solvents, such as rubbing alcohol. Solvents can play a key role in our well-being, and they also frequently play a role at the start of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.

Isopropyl alcohol, or rubbing alcohol, is an example of a solvent that plays a dual role. A versatile solvent, it is often used in our homes as a disinfectant, and is also used as an industrial solvent to dissolve products such as oils and resins in manufacturing processes. Additionally, it can be used as a building block to make other products. 

Ointments and other topical products, such as antibacterial creams and corticosteroids, often use solvents in the beginning of the process to manufacture the active ingredients. As the drug is being transformed into its final form, whether cream, lotion or liquid, solvents are used as a medium for blending materials. Solvents also are used to help the final product achieve the proper consistency. 

Other pharmaceutical items in our households that use solvents include pet care products. Solvents are often found in pet shampoos, ointments, oral medications and topicals. Pet shampoos use solvents to dissolve a drug for topical treatment, or to provide moisture and softeners for our pets’ skin and hair.

How do solvents work in pharmaceuticals?

Solvents can serve one or more functions in pharmaceutical manufacture. They provide molecules to build some drugs. For other drugs, solvents are used for extraction and purification. Solvents also can provide a reaction medium. 

Solvents work in a variety of ways to contribute to many of the medicines people use today. As helpers in the formulation of many health care products such as penicillin, aspirin, cough syrup, and topical ointments, solvents play an important role in the medicine cabinet.

What is a solvent? 

Solvents are chemical substances that can dissolve, suspend or extract other materials usually without chemically changing either the solvents or the other materials. Solvents can be organic, meaning the solvent contains carbon as part of its makeup, or inorganic, meaning the solvent does not contain carbon. For example, “rubbing” alcohol is an organic solvent and water is an inorganic solvent. Hydrocarbon and oxygenated solvents are examples of types of organic solvents that can effectively dissolve many materials.

Modern solvents make it happen.®


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