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Guide Health: Antiseptics and disinfectants

Always let your hand sanitizer evaporate on your skin. That’s how it works!

Antiseptics and disinfectants both slow or stop the growth of micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, but with one difference. Antiseptics are intended for human use, while disinfectants are used to clean inanimate objects like table tops, counters and sinks.

Sometimes the same product can be used for both, but the disinfectant may be more potent.

For wounds, ideally you want to flush with clean water, stop any bleeding and apply a clean dressing. Antiseptics should only be used when the risk of infection is high, and even then they should be applied around the wound, not directly into the wound, which could result in tissue damage.

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Antiseptics are not recommended for eye injuries, animal or human bites, deep or large wounds, severe burns, or wounds that contain objects or debris that you cannot remove. It makes sense that you want to seek medical advice for these more severe wounds.

The most common antiseptics are hydrogen peroxide, iodine as povidone iodine, and alcohol. Hydrogen peroxide and alcohol are also used as disinfectants and povidone iodine 10% is usually reserved for skin ulcerations.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer contains 70 per cent alcohol and is the recommended option when washing your hands is not possible. Alcohol kills bacteria by dehydrating them, but must be allowed to evaporate to have this effect.

At one time, chlorhexidine was an antiseptic found in many skin cleansers, but currently it is more often used as a mouth rinse in a dilute solution for gingivitis.

Disinfectants are not intended for human use as they are damaging to tissue. This category also includes such processes as sterilization by heat, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Other examples include bleach or sodium hypochlorite and hydrogen peroxide in higher concentrations and sometimes as a gas, as well as formaldehyde. You certainly can see why these shouldn’t be used on your skin!

The level of disinfection depends upon the type of surface and the intended use of the equipment, for example, cleaning a chair would require a lower level than surgical equipment.

Before using a disinfectant, make sure you clear the surface or item of any visible debris. Wear protective clothing and apply the disinfectant in a well ventilated space. Reading the instructions before using is important, as is appropriate storage and disposal.

One of the easiest ways to ensure that your hands are clean is to wash them with soap and water. It is important to use soap because if you only use water, dirt will be removed, but micro-organisms may not. Research has shown that a regular bar of soap is as effective as an antiseptic soap. It is the soap that “grabs onto” the micro-organisms which you can then wash down the sink. Don’t forget to wash all hand surfaces and under your nails for about 20 seconds or the time it takes you to say the alphabet twice.

Antiseptics and disinfectants will protect you from micro-organisms, but they don’t replace such measures as covering coughs and sneezes, disposing of used tissues, not touching your face, eyes, mouth or nose, and washing your hands. If you do use antiseptics, remember that they should only be applied to unbroken skin. And, remember to close the antiseptic bottle well. It can become contaminated. too!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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