What do you reach for when cleaning a kitchen cutting board or caring for a scratch? A disinfectant, antiseptic, or an antibiotic?
Disinfectants and antiseptics are chemical compounds with the power to either completely destroy organisms that cause disease or keep them from multiplying. These compounds can be effective against bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms like amebae that live in water.
There are two main types of disinfectant chemicals and disinfecting procedures: sanitizers (sanitization) and sterilizers (sterilization).
Sterilization is a procedure meant to destroy all life forms on a surface. At the same time, sanitizing is less complete, killing most of the organisms it touches and reducing the number left down to a safe level.
Surgical instruments are sterilized with a two-step process. They are first soaked in a disinfectant solution of a particular concentration for a specific time, called cold sterilization. This is followed by heat sterilization by exposing them to very high temperatures inside a pressure cooker-like appliance called an autoclave.
Heat sterilization procedures are used in home canning. You immerse empty canning jars in boiling water for a set time to prepare them for your food. After filling the jars, they are further exposed to heat, with either more time in boiling water or inside a pressure cooker.
Sanitizing kills organisms that cause disease. A disinfectant is a compound used to clean inanimate surfaces like kitchen cutting boards and bathroom fixtures. Cleaning a wound effectively requires something that can kill microorganisms without damaging living tissue: an antiseptic. Antiseptics include antibiotics that target bacteria, antifungals that attack fungi, and antivirals that work against viruses.
An effective disinfectant or antiseptic works against various microorganisms, kills on contact and acts quickly. One beneficial characteristic is the ability to penetrate cracks and crannies where microbes can lurk.
Some bacteria can form a tight layer over a surface. This is called a biofilm. When bacteria form these layers, they become much harder to kill. The ability of a compound to penetrate into a biofilm and destroy it is a valuable characteristic.
To be most useful, antiseptics and disinfectants must be able to be used safely with other commonly used cleaners. They also should not have toxic fumes and be economical to use. Finally, disinfectants shouldn’t create any pitting, corrosion, or staining of instruments or surfaces, and antiseptics must not damage living tissue.
Some examples of commercial disinfectants include hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite (the ingredient in household bleach), phenol, and formaldehyde. Although bottles of hydrogen peroxide and laundry bleach are everyday household items, they are used in higher concentrations when used as commercial disinfectants.
Antiseptics include compounds that reduce the spread of certain organisms or kill them outright. They can suppress the general growth of microbes or be only effective on specific microorganisms, like antibiotics, antifungals, and antivirals. Some anti-infectives should only be used on intact skin, like when used just before surgery. At the same time, others can be applied to wounds or given internally.
A compound containing mercury and bromine called Mercurochrome® was widely used in the 1960s as a topical antiseptic. Like many kids then, my mother painted it on my cuts. After stinging like mad, it left a bright reddish-orange stripe that would take days to fade.
Unfortunately, mercury can be absorbed through broken skin. Mercurochrome® is no longer used because it isn’t considered effective enough to be worth the risk of being exposed to mercury. Mercurochrome® was replaced with Merthiolate®, a different form of mercury called thimerosal.
Thimerosal is much safer because it “locks” mercury to prevent it from being absorbed into your body. In the past, thimerosal has been used in vaccines as a preservative. Today, most vaccines are distributed as single-dose syringes without the need for preservatives. This avoids potential exposure to mercury from vaccination.
Iodine is helpful as tablets to decontaminate water for drinking and as a solution called povidone-iodine (Betadine®) to clean skin before surgery.
Silver is used on the skin as silver sulfadiazine, an antibiotic widely used in burn victims. Silver nitrate works to cauterize wounds and reduce bleeding.
Hand gels containing at least 60% alcohol work as hand sanitizers, significantly reducing the number of bacteria and viruses on your hands. Parabens and benzalkonium chloride interfere with the growth of microbes and are widely used as preservatives in eye drops and nose sprays.
For kitchen cutting boards, household chlorine bleach sanitizes well.
Hydrogen peroxide helps clean scratches, but you should avoid applying it after the initial cleanse because it destroys new tissue, preventing wounds from healing.
Dr. Louise Achey, Doctor of Pharmacy, is a 44-year veteran of pharmacology and author of Why Dogs Can’t Eat Chocolate: How Medicines Work and How YOU Can Take Them Safely. Get clear answers to your medication questions at her website and blog, TheMedicationInsider.com.
Ó2023 Louise Achey
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