what do antiseptics do

How do antiseptics work?

What is an antiseptic?

Antiseptics are compounds that contain chemicals known as biocides. When biocides are applied to the skin, they destroy or inhibit the growth of pathogens and help prevent infections.  Depending on the type of antiseptic, they can be effective against multiple pathogens, including bacteria and yeasts.

Types of antiseptics

Antiseptics are classified according to their chemical structure. Commonly used antiseptics include alcohols, chlorhexidine salts, quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs), iodine compounds and peroxides.

How do antiseptics work scientifically?

Studies into how different types of antiseptics work look at whether the antiseptic kills the microbes (bactericidal), or prevent the microbe from spreading (bacteriostatic).

Common types of topical antiseptics and their actions

  • Povidone-iodine — Povidone-iodine‘s exact mode of action is unknown, and it is known to rapidly kills bacteria. Iodine penetrates microorganisms attacking key groups of proteins, nucleotides, and fatty acids which rapidly culminates in cell death.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide — Hydrogen peroxide demonstrates broad-spectrum efficacy against bacteria, yeasts, and bacterial spores, but higher concentrations and longer contact times are needed for sporicidal activity.
  • Chlorhexidine salts — Chlorhexidine is probably the most widely-use broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent commonly used in handwashing products.
  • Alcohols — Alcohols show broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity against bacteria, viruses and fungi but do not kill bacterial spores.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds eg. Cetramide — QACs damage the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria and fungi, and inhibit the growth of bacterial spores.

Which antiseptic is the most effective?

All modern antiseptics work well as broad-spectrum antimicrobials for around the home. Some, as mentioned above, work at killing microbes, while others work to stop the spread of bacteria. When choosing an antiseptic for you and your family, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it broad-spectrum? — Is the product effective against a wide range of microorganisms?
  • Is it fast-acting? — How quickly does the product work?
  • What am I using it for? Do I need something for a small skin infection? Do I want a general product I can use for wound care?
  • Is it easy to use? — How easy is it to use? Would I prefer a spray or a cream? Would a concentrated ointment be better?
  • Where am I using it? — Do I need a small tube for when I’m on the road? Do I need a larger bottle for the medicine cabinet at home?

What is the difference between an antiseptic and a sanitiser?

Sanitisers reduce the number of bacteria and other microbes on surfaces, where antiseptics inhibit or kill the microbes. Sanitisers help reduce infection risk by lowering the number of germs on a surface or object.

Speak to your healthcare professional about which antiseptic product is right for you.

Always read the label and follow the directions for use.

MAT-AU-2203366. Dec 2022.

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