Disinfectants and Antiseptics

Quick Tips #206

Chemical germicides including disinfectants and antiseptics are used in a variety of applications from sterilizing medical instruments at hospitals to cleaning a household kitchen counter. Chemical germicides are known by several names - antimicrobials, disinfectants, sporicides, sanitizers and sterilants, just to name a few. They are used to destroy a variety of pathogenic microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, spores, molds and fungi. Chemical germicides are divided into three categories: sterilants, disinfectants and antiseptics.

Sterilants kill microorganisms on hard surfaces. This includes bacterial spores, which can survive other germicides.

Disinfectants, which can be classified as high-, medium-, or low-level depending on the strength required, kill nearly all microbials on hard surfaces except for spores.

Antiseptics are used to inactivate or destroy organisms on skin or living tissue.

Associated key terms include:

  • Cleaning
    • General removal of debris (dirt, food, feces, blood, saliva and other body secretions)
    • Reduces amount of organic matter that contributes to proliferation of bacteria and viruses
  • Disinfection
    • Removes most organisms present on hard surfaces that can cause infection or disease
  • Sterilization
    • The killing or removal of all organisms

Deciding which category of chemical germicide to use depends on the function of the device or surface that will be treated. For example, steam autoclaving or ethylene oxide sterilization might damage certain instruments, so the use of chemical germicides may be suggested for those processes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities 2008, when properly used, cleaning, disinfection and sterilization processes can reduce the risk for infection associated with use of invasive and noninvasive medical and surgical devices.

Germicidal Effectiveness

The following factors influence the effectiveness of chemical germicides:

  • Shape of the object being cleaned, including its surface texture and whether it is flat or has cracks
  • Amount of microbiologicals on the surface
  • Resistance of the microbiologicals to the germicide
  • Amount of additional soil buildup on the object, including blood, mucous or tissue
  • Chemical composition of the germicide
  • Time of exposure to the germicide
  • Temperature of the germicide

Generally, spores have the most resistance to chemical germicides, followed by mycobacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, non-lipid viruses such as poliovirus, fungi such as Cryptococcus, vegetative bacteria such as Salmonella choleraesuis and lipid viruses such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), with the least resistance.

Because of the many factors that affect chemical germicides, each object that is to be cleaned must be analyzed for the best method and germicide to use.

It is of great importance to read and understand the manufacturer's instructions to know which application the product is designed for as well as the instructions for its proper use.

Common Active Ingredients

This chart features the common active ingredients in many chemical germicides. It shows the normal concentrations of each ingredient, along with the activity level expressed as high (H), medium (M) and low (L) as an indicator of its disinfecting strength.

Ingredient Sterilization Concentration Disinfection
Concentration Activity Level
Alcohols None 70% M
Chlorine Dioxide Variable Variable H
Chlorine mixtures None 500 to 5000milligrams
free chlorine
Formaldehyde 6% to 8% 1% to 8% H, M, L
Glutaraldehyde Variable Variable H, M
Hydrogen Peroxide 6% to 30% 3% to 6% H, M
Iodophor mixtures None 40 to 50milligrams
free iodine
Peracetic acid Variable Variable M
Phenolic mixtures None 0.5% to 3% M, L
Quaternary ammonium mixtures None 0.1% to 0.2% L

Source: Healthcare Hazard Control and Safety Management, Second Edition By James T. Tweedy

Regulatory Agencies

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees sterilants that are required for a specific medical device. The manufacturers must submit specific microbial activity data to the FDA before a pre-market notification or 510(k) is issued. Once the 510(k) is issued, the product is ready for trade.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Pesticides oversees disinfectants. Manufacturers are required to test products using pre-established test procedures on product stability, toxicity to people and microbial activity. If the product passes these requirements, it is registered by the agency and ready for trade.

The FDA also oversees antiseptics or drugs used on or in the human body. This includes antimicrobial soaps, antiseptics, scrubs and wound protectants, which are simply categorized by an advisory panel that scrutinize non-prescription germicidal products. Manufacturers can voluntarily submit information on these products.

Commonly Asked Questions
Q: Are chemical germicides required by any OSHA regulation? A: Yes. OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard, 29 CFR 1910.1030, requires chemical germicides. Housekeeping requirements mandate decontamination and disinfection procedures for all equipment and working surfaces when they contact blood or other potentially infectious materials. In addition, general work practices require that handwashing facilities be made available. If they are not feasible, an antiseptic hand cleanser and towels or antiseptic towelettes must be available. For more information on the Bloodborne Pathogens standard, see Quick Tips #105: OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1030.

Q: Can disinfectants be used as antiseptics? A: No. Disinfectants are designed for hard surfaces and might be too strong for skin or tissue. Conversely, antiseptics might not be strong enough to provide for thorough disinfection of hard surfaces.


Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 29 CFR 1910.1030, Bloodborne Pathogens.

Basics of Infection Prevention 2-Day Mini-Course California APIC Coordinating Council 2013

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities, 2008

Healthcare Hazard Control and Safety Management, Second Edition, By James T. Tweedy

(Rev. 11/2015)


Find even more information you can use to help make informed decisions about the regulatory issues you face in your workplace every day. View all Quick Tips Technical Resources at

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Please Note:
The information contained in this publication is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This publication is not a substitute for review of the current applicable government regulations and standards specific to your location and business activity, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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