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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.

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.

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.
  • Disinfecting mucous membranes. Antiseptics can be applied to the urethra, bladder, or vagina to clean the area before inserting a catheter. They can also help to treat an infection in these areas.
  • 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.
  • Treating throat and mouth infections. Some throat lozenges contain antiseptics to help with sore throats due to a bacterial infection. You can purchase these on Amazon.

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.

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:

  • eye injuries
  • human or animal bites
  • deep or large wounds
  • severe burns
  • 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.

FDA regulations

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned 24 ingredients in OTC antiseptics, effective December 20, 2018. This is due to concerns about how long these ingredients can remain in the body and a lack of evidence regarding their safety and effectiveness.

Aside from triclosan, most of these ingredients aren’t present in common antiseptics, so the ban doesn’t have much of an impact on currently available antiseptics. Manufacturers have already started updating their products to remove triclosan and any other banned ingredients.

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.