Questions and Answers
What is an antiseptic?
An antiseptic is a substance that stops or slows down the growth of microorganisms. They’re frequently used in hospitals and other medical settings to reduce the risk of infection during surgery and other procedures.
If you’ve ever witnessed any type of surgery, you probably saw the surgeon rubbing their hands and arms with an orange-tinted substance. This is an antiseptic.
Different types of antiseptics are used in medical settings. These include hand rubs, hand washes, and skin preparations. Some are also available over the counter (OTC) for home use.
Read on to learn more about antiseptics, including how they compare to disinfectants, the different types, and safety information.
What’s the difference between an antiseptic and a disinfectant?
Antiseptics and disinfectants both kill microorganisms, and many people use the terms interchangeably. Adding to the confusion, antiseptics are sometimes called skin disinfectants.
But there’s a big difference between antiseptics and disinfectants. An antiseptic is applied to the body, while disinfectants are applied to nonliving surfaces, such as countertops and handrails. In a surgical setting, for example, a doctor will apply an antiseptic to the surgical site on a person’s body and use a disinfectant to sterilize the operating table.
Both antiseptics and disinfectants contain chemical agents that are sometimes called biocides. Hydrogen peroxide is an example of a common ingredient in both antiseptics and disinfectants. However, antiseptics usually contain lower concentrations of biocides than disinfectants do.
How are antiseptics used?
Antiseptics have a variety of uses both in and out of medical settings. In both settings, they’re applied to either the skin or mucous membranes.
Specific antiseptic uses include:
Hand washing. Medical professionals use antiseptics for hand scrubs and rubs in hospitals.
Cleaning skin before an operation. Antiseptics are applied to the skin before any kind of surgery to protect against any harmful microorganisms that might be on the skin.
Treating skin infections. You can buy OTC antiseptics to reduce the risk of infection in minor cuts, burns, and wounds. Examples include hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol.
What are some types of antiseptic?
Antiseptics are usually categorized by their chemical structure. All types disinfect skin, but some have additional uses.
Common types with varied uses include:
Chlorhexidine and other biguanides. These are used on open wounds and for bladder irrigation.
Antibacterial dye. These help to treat wounds and burns.
Peroxide and permanganate. These are often used in antiseptic mouthwashes and on open wounds.
Halogenated phenol derivative. This is used in medical-grade soaps and cleaning solutions.
Are antiseptics safe?
Some strong antiseptics can cause chemical burns or severe irritation if applied to skin without being diluted with water. Even diluted antiseptics can cause irritation if they’re left on skin for long periods of time. This kind of irritation is called irritant contact dermatitis.
If you’re using an antiseptic at home, don’t use it for more than a week at a time.
Avoid using OTC antiseptics for more serious wounds, such as:
deep or large wounds
wounds that contain foreign objects
These are all best handled by a doctor or urgent care clinic. You should also see a doctor if you’ve been treating a wound with antiseptic and it doesn’t seem to be healing.
The bottom line
Antiseptics are substances that help to stop the growth of microorganisms on the skin. They’re used daily in medical settings to reduce the risk of infection and stop the spread of germs. While they’re generally safe, it’s best to avoid using them for long periods of time.