Antiseptics, or skin disinfectants, are chemicals for cleaning the skin and wounds. They can kill or prevent the growth of microorganisms.
Although antiseptics can be very useful, there are some questions around their safety for topical use, especially in the long term.
Keep reading for more information about antiseptics, including the types available, their uses, and current safety concerns.
Antiseptics are chemicals that people apply to the skin. They can reduce the number of microorganisms living on the skin, in wounds, and in mucous membranes.
Different types of antiseptic vary in cost, effectiveness, uses, and potential side effects.
Healthcare workers often use antiseptics before carrying out medical procedures, such as drawing blood and performing surgery.
Antiseptics are also available over the counter for cleaning and treating minor cuts. Some may also be suitable as a substitute for soap.
People can use antiseptics to clean areas of broken skin, intact areas of skin, and mucous membranes.
Disinfectants, antibacterials, and antibiotics have similar but slightly different purposes. The sections below will outline these differences in more detail.
Disinfectants vs. antiseptics
People use antiseptics, such as peroxides, to kill microorganisms on the skin and mucous membranes. Whereas antiseptics destroy certain germs on the skin, disinfectants can remove them from objects.
Disinfectants and antiseptics are both made from chemicals. In fact, they often share similar active ingredients. However, disinfectants tend to have higher concentrations, which are not suitable for use on the skin or mucous membranes.
Antibacterials vs. antiseptics
Antibacterials are also chemicals that people can use to clean areas of the skin. Soaps and sprays often contain antibacterials.
Antibacterial sprays are effective in killing or slowing the growth of bacteria. They do not kill or prevent viruses from growing, however.
By contrast, antiseptics can kill or prevent the growth of viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Antibiotics vs. antiseptics
Antibiotics are a type of prescription medication that can treat bacterial infections.
Both antiseptics and antibiotics can treat bacterial infections. People can apply both types to the skin or mucous membranes.
However, a person can also take antibiotics orally, to treat a variety of infections inside the body.
There are several types of antiseptics. Some are safe to use at home, whereas others are only suitable for use in clinical or hospital settings.
Some common types of antiseptics include:
- alcohols, such as isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol
- quaternary ammonium compound
- chlorhexidine and other diguanides, for use before operations
- antibacterial dye, to treat burns and wounds
- peroxide and permanganate, to disinfect the skin or to use as a mouthwash
- halogenated phenol derivative, in soaps and solutions
- quinolone derivative, which treats wounds and can be an ingredient in throat lozenges
Antiseptics have several potential uses. Some of the most common include:
- preventing infections on the skin, particularly for cuts, scrapes, or minor burns
- dry hand-washing, which healthcare workers may do between different procedures or patients
- cleaning the skin before a medical procedure, such as a blood draw or surgery
- treating throat infections with mouthwashes or lozenges
- cleaning mucous membranes, to treat infections or before using a catheter
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have found potential safety concerns for 24 active ingredients in antiseptics. The FDA have deferred judgment on an additional six ingredients at the request of manufacturers.
Those ingredients are:
- alcohol (ethanol)
- isopropyl alcohol
- benzethonium chloride
- benzalkonium chloride
The FDA have banned several active ingredients because of the unknown long-term effects on the body. There is also little evidence regarding their effectiveness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still advise that healthcare professionals follow all current recommendations for the use of antiseptics.
When using antiseptics at home, a person should follow all safety instructions on the bottle. Using antiseptics with too high a concentration may cause irritation or chemical burns on the skin.
Over-the-counter antiseptics are not suitable for long-term use. A person should only use them for a week or under.
People should avoid using antiseptics on:
- large wounds and burns
- areas where a foreign object is stuck in the skin
- animal bites and scratches
- eye infections
A person should not use disinfectants on the skin. Disinfectants are for cleaning surfaces, not for cleaning wounds.
If in doubt, a person can contact their healthcare provider for clarification.
Antiseptics are for cleaning the skin, wounds, and mucous membranes. Antiseptics are similar to disinfectants, often sharing similar active ingredients in different quantities. However, a person should not use disinfectants on the skin.
Antiseptics are generally effective in killing or preventing the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
There are some questions around the safety of antiseptics, and the FDA have banned the use of 24 different active ingredients. The CDC still recommend that healthcare professionals continue using antiseptics in line with the current guidelines.
If in doubt, a person can talk to their healthcare provider about which types of antiseptic are best to use for their particular health concern.