Jun 06, 2023

Antiseptics: Examples and When to Use (or Not Use) Them

Antiseptics are antimicrobial substances applied topically to the skin to prevent or slow the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, that cause infections and diseases. Disinfectants are different from antiseptics in that they destroy microorganisms found on nonliving objects and surfaces.

There are two general categories of antiseptics: rubs and washes. They are found in pharmaceutical products such as creams, ointments, gels, gargles, and consumer products such as soaps and hand sanitizers. They are essential to controlling and preventing the spread of infections in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

This article discusses examples of antiseptics, their safety, and when their use should be avoided.

FotoDuets / Getty Images

When used on the skin and in other tissues, antiseptics kill and stop bacteria and viruses that can cause diseases or infections. Antiseptics protect healthcare workers and patients in settings such as hospitals, clinics, and skilled nursing facilities. When used as a consumer product, antiseptics typically protect the user.

Although the words "antiseptic" and "disinfectant" are often used interchangeably, they do not have the same meaning. Antiseptics are meant to be used on living tissue, such as the skin, while disinfectants are designed to sterilize nonliving objects and surfaces like floors and countertops.

While some of the same chemicals are used in antiseptics and disinfectants, antiseptics generally contain much lower concentrations of the active chemical agent.

Uses for antiseptics include:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates antiseptics used in healthcare settings and sold over the counter to consumers. Some antiseptic agents used in healthcare products are not available in consumer products.

Antiseptic chemicals commonly used in healthcare and surgical settings include:

Antiseptic agents commonly found in consumer over-the-counter (OTC) products include:

Due to possible adverse health effects, the FDA regulates and has banned some ingredients in antiseptics. This is due to insufficient data to support their safety and effectiveness.

Antiseptic products should always be applied according to the directions on the packaging. Antiseptic soaps and bodywashes should be used with water and rinsed off afterward. Antiseptic rubs, such as hand sanitizers and wipes, are meant to be left on the skin after use and should not be rinsed off with water.

While antiseptics and disinfectants can slow or stop the growth of many microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi, antibacterial products are designed to only slow or stop the growth of bacteria. Antibiotics are medications intended to be taken internally or applied to the skin and will kill or slow the growth of certain bacteria the drug is targeted to work on.

Antiseptic hand sanitizers and wipes should only be used when handwashing with soap and water is unavailable. That's because while antiseptic products will kill some microorganisms on your hands, washing with soap and water will remove all the microorganisms and any other harmful substances on your hands.

An antiseptic can be used on wounds or cuts that are contaminated or infected but does not need to be applied to clean, noninfected wounds. While hydrogen peroxide is still commonly used as an at-home remedy, it is no longer routinely used in hospital settings because it may harm certain cells that help heal.

Antiseptic agents are subject to FDA regulation, and the agency works to ensure that evaluations of the safety and effectiveness of active ingredients are up to date.

While antiseptics are usually well tolerated, topical antiseptics can cause irritation and allergic reactions such as contact dermatitis. The risk of reaction increases in people with eczema and other skin conditions, or if the chemical agent is used at a too-high concentration.

Antiseptics are commonly used in both healthcare settings and by consumers to help prevent the spread of microorganisms and infections. Antiseptics are also sometimes used to treat some infections. Antiseptics contain many different chemical agents, all of which are subject to FDA regulations.

Antiseptics come in many forms, including soaps, sanitizers, creams, sprays, and wipes. Although generally considered safe, some topical antiseptics can cause allergic skin reactions.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Topical antiseptic products: Hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps.

Pharmaguideline. Difference between disinfectants and antiseptics.

McDonnell G, Russell AD. Antiseptics and disinfectants: activity, action, and resistance. Clin Microbiol Rev. 1999 Jan;12(1):147-79. doi:10.1128/CMR.12.1.147

Pharmaeducation. Difference between antiseptic and disinfectant.

DermNet. What are antiseptics used for?.

National Institutes of Health. Skin antiseptics.

American Cleaning Institute. Topical antiseptics: Hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps.

Environmental Working Group. Benzalkonium chloride.

National Institutes of Health. Purell advanced instant hand sanitizer.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Povidone-iodine.

Weatherly LM, Gosse JA. Triclosan exposure, transformation, and human health effects. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2017;20(8):447-469. doi:10.1080/10937404.2017.1399306

Columbia University. Antiseptic vs. antibacterial mouthwashes.

National Institutes of Health. Antimicrobials including antibiotics, antiseptics and antifungal agents.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequent questions about hand hygiene.

Best Practice Journal. Should I prescribe a topical antiseptic cream instead of a topical antibiotic for minor skin infections?.

By Cathy NelsonCathy Nelson has worked as a writer and editor covering health and wellness for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in print and online in numerous outlets, including the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News.