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18.1: Disinfectants, Antiseptics, and Sanitizers

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    Disinfection is the elimination of microorganisms, but not necessarily endospores, from inanimate objects or surfaces, whereas decontamination is the treatment of an object or inanimate surface to make it safe to handle.

    a. The term disinfectant is used for an agent used to disinfect inanimate objects or surfaces but is generally to toxic to use on human tissues.

    b. The term antiseptic refers to an agent that kills or inhibits growth of microbes but is safe to use on human tissue.

    c. The term sanitizer describes an agent that reduces, but may not eliminate, microbial numbers to a safe level.

    Because disinfectants and antiseptics often work slowly on some viruses - such as the hepatitis viruses, bacteria with an acid-fast cell wall such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and especially bacterial endospores, produced by the genus Bacillus and the genus Clostridium, they are usually unreliable for sterilization - the destruction of all life forms.

    There are a number of factors which influence the antimicrobial action of disinfectants and antiseptics, including:

    1. The concentration of the chemical agent.

    2. The temperature at which the agent is being used. Generally, the lower the temperature, the longer it takes to disinfect or decontaminate.

    3. The kinds of microorganisms present. Endospore producers such as Bacillus species, Clostridium species, and acid-fast bacteria like Mycobacterium tuberculosis are harder to eliminate.

    4. The number of microorganisms present. The more microorganisms present, the harder it is to disinfect or decontaminate.

    5. The nature of the material bearing the microorganisms. Organic material such as dirt and excreta interferes with some agents.

    The best results are generally obtained when the initial microbial numbers are low and when the surface to be disinfected is clean and free of possible interfering substances.

    There are 2 common antimicrobial modes of action for disinfectants, antiseptics, and sanitizers:

    1. They may damage the lipids and/or proteins of the semipermeable cytoplasmic membrane of microorganisms resulting in leakage of cellular materials needed to sustain life.

    2. They may denature microbial enzymes and other proteins, usually by disrupting the hydrogen and disulfide bonds that give the protein its three-dimensional functional shape. This blocks metabolism.

    A large number of such chemical agents are in common use. Some of the more common groups are listed below:

    1. Phenol and phenol derivatives

    Phenol (5-10%) was the first disinfectant commonly used. However, because of its toxicity and odor, phenol derivatives (phenolics) are now generally used. The most common phenolic is orthophenylphenol, the agent found in O-syl®, Staphene®, and Amphyl®. Bisphenols contain two phenolic groups and typically have chlorine as a part of their structure. They include hexachlorophene and triclosan. Hexachlorophene in a 3% solution is combined with detergent and is found in PhisoHex®. Triclosan is an antiseptic very common in antimicrobial soaps and other products. Biguanides include chlorhexadine and alexidine. A 4% solution of chlorhexidine in isopropyl alcohol and combined with detergent (Hibiclens® and Hibitane®) is a common hand washing agent and surgical handscrub. These agents kill most bacteria, most fungi, and some viruses, but are usually ineffective against endospores. Chloroxylenol (4-chloro-3,5-dimethylphenol) is a broad spectrum antimicrobial chemical compound used to control bacteria, algae, fungi and virus and is often used in antimicrobial soaps and antiseptics. Phenol and phenolics alter membrane permeability and denature proteins. Bisphenols, biguanides, and chloroxylenol alter membrane permeability.

    2. Soaps and detergents

    Soaps are only mildly microbicidal. Their use aids in the mechanical removal of microorganisms by breaking up the oily film on the skin (emulsification) and reducing the surface tension of water so it spreads and penetrates more readily. Some cosmetic soaps contain added antiseptics to increase antimicrobial activity.

    Detergents may be anionic or cationic. Anionic (negatively charged) detergents, such as laundry powders, mechanically remove microorganisms and other materials but are not very microbicidal. Cationic (positively charged) detergents alter membrane permeability and denature proteins. They are effective against many vegetative bacteria, some fungi, and some viruses. However, bacterial endospores and certain bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosisand Pseudomonas species are usually resistant. Soaps and organic materials like excreta also inactivate them. Cationic detergents include the quaternary ammonium compounds such as benzalkonium chloride, zephiran®, diaprene, roccal, ceepryn, and phemerol. Household Lysol® contains alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride and alcohols.

    3. Alcohols

    70% solutions of ethyl or isopropyl alcohol are effective in killing vegetative bacteria, enveloped viruses, and fungi. However, they are usually ineffective against endospores and non-enveloped viruses. Once they evaporate, their cidal activity will cease. Alcohols denature membranes and proteins and are often combined with other disinfectants, such as iodine, mercurials, and cationic detergents for increased effectiveness.

    4. Acids and alkalies

    Acids and alkalies alter membrane permeability and denature proteins and other molecules. Salts of organic acids, such as calcium propionate, potassium sorbate, and methylparaben, are commonly used as food preservatives. Undecylenic acid (Desenex®) is used for dermatophyte infections of the skin. An example of an alkali is lye (sodium hydroxide).

    5. Heavy metals

    Heavy metals, such as mercury, silver, and copper, denature proteins. Mercury compounds (mercurochrome, metaphen, merthiolate) are only bacteriostatic and are not effective against endospores. Silver nitrate (1%) is sometimes put in the eyes of newborns to prevent gonococcal ophthalmia. Copper sulfate is used to combat fungal diseases of plants and is also a common algicide. Selinium sulfide kills fungi and their spores.

    6. Chlorine

    Chlorine gas reacts with water to form hypochlorite ions, which in turn denature microbial enzymes. Chlorine is used in the chlorination of drinking water, swimming pools, and sewage. Sodium hypochlorite is the active agent in household bleach. Calcium hypochlorite, sodium hypochlorite, and chloramines (chlorine plus ammonia) are used to sanitize glassware, eating utensils, dairy and food processing equipment, hemodialysis systems, and treating water supplies.

    7. Iodine and iodophores

    Iodine also denatures microbial proteins. Iodine tincture contains a 2% solution of iodine and sodium iodide in 70% alcohol. Aqueous iodine solutions containing 2% iodine and 2.4% sodium iodide are commonly used as a topical antiseptic. Iodophores are a combination of iodine and an inert polymer such as polyvinylpyrrolidone that reduces surface tension and slowly releases the iodine. Iodophores are less irritating than iodine and do not stain.They are generally effective against vegetative bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, fungi, some viruses, and some endospores. Examples include Wescodyne®, Ioprep®, Ioclide®, Betadine®, and Isodine®.

    8. Aldehydes

    Aldehydes, such as formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, denature microbial proteins. Formalin (37% aqueous solution of formaldehyde gas) is extremely active and kills most forms of microbial life. It is used in embalming, preserving biological specimens, and in preparing vaccines. Alkaline glutaraldehyde (Cidex®), acid glutaraldehyde (Sonacide®), and glutaraldehyde phenate solutions (Sporocidin®) kill vegetative bacteria in 10-30 minutes and endospores in about 4 hours. A 10 hour exposure to a 2% glutaraldehyde solution can be used for cold sterilization of materials. Ortho-phthalaldehyde (OPA) is dialdehyde used as a high-level disinfectant for medical instruments.

    9. Peroxygens

    Peroxygens are oxidizing agentes that include hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid. Hydrogen peroxide is broken down into water and oxygen by the enzyme catalase in human cells and is not that good of an antiseptic for open wounds but is useful for disinfecting inanimate objects. The high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide overwhelm the catalase found in microbes. Peracetic acid is a disinfectant that kills microorganisms by oxidation and subsequent disruption of their cytoplasmic membrane. It is widely used in healthcare, food processing, and water treatment.

    10. Ethylene oxide gas

    Ethylene oxide is one of the very few chemicals that can be relied upon for sterilization (after 4-12 hours exposure). Since it is explosive, it is usually mixed with inert gases such as freon or carbon dioxide. Gaseous chemosterilizers, using ethylene oxide, are commonly used to sterilize heat-sensitive items such as plastic syringes, petri plates, textiles, sutures, artificial heart valves, heart-lung machines, and mattresses. Ethylene oxide has very high penetrating power and denatures microbial proteins. Vapors are toxic to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes and are also carcinogenic. Another gas that is used as a sterilant is chlorine dioxide which denatures proteins in vegetative bacteria, bacterial endospores, viruses, and fungi.

    Contributors and Attributions


    This page titled 18.1: Disinfectants, Antiseptics, and Sanitizers is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gary Kaiser.

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