Antiseptics: What do you need to know?

What is an antiseptic?

An antiseptic is a substance that stops or slows the growth of microorganisms. They’re commonly 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 likely saw the surgeon rubbing their arms and hands with an orange-tinted liquid. This is an antiseptic.

Different types of antiseptics are used in medical settings. These include hand rubs, hand washes, and skin preparations. They 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.

How does Antiseptic Cream work?

Antiseptic creams work by killing or limiting the growth of bacteria and microorganisms that can cause infection. The active ingredients found in antiseptic creams are specifically designed to target the cell membranes of microorganisms, which ultimately leads to their death.

Apart from killing microorganisms, antiseptic creams can also prevent the growth of new microorganisms. This is achieved by creating an unfavourable atmosphere for the growth and survival of microorganisms. Antiseptic creams reduce the pH level of your skin and create an acidic atmosphere that is unfavourable for the growth of many microorganisms.

Antiseptic creams can also be effective at promoting wound healing. This is achieved by reducing inflammation and stopping the formation of scar tissue. The active ingredients of antiseptic creams aid in reducing inflammation by blocking the immune response in the affected area. This helps to prevent excessive inflammation, which can hinder the healing process.


There are a variety of antiseptics. Some are suitable to use at home, whereas others are only suitable for use in clinical or hospital settings.

The most common antiseptics are:

  • alcohols, including isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol,
  • Quaternary ammonium compound
  • chlorhexidine and other diguanides for use before operations
  • Antibacterial dye to treat burns and abrasions
  • peroxide and permanganate to cleanse the skin or to use as a mouthwash
  • Halogenated phenol derivative, found in soaps and solutions
  • Quinolone derivatives, which treat injuries and can be an ingredient in throat lozenges


How are antiseptics used?

Antiseptics have various uses, both in and out of medical settings. In both cases, they’re applied to either the skin or mucous membranes.

The most specific antiseptic cream uses are:

  • Hand washing: Medical professionals use antiseptics for hand scrubs and rubs in hospitals.
  • Cuts and scratches: Antiseptic cream for cuts is a commonly used first aid treatment to prevent infection and promote healing.
  • Burns: Antiseptic cream is also effective for treating minor burns. It can help prevent infections and reduce inflammation which helps to promote healing.
  • Athlete’s Foot: Antiseptic cream is also used to treat an athlete’s foot. The cream aids in killing the fungus responsible for the athlete’s foot and prevents its spread.
  • Cleaning skin before surgery: Antiseptic creams are applied to the skin before any kind of operation to protect against any harmful microorganisms that might be on the skin.
  • Treatment of skin infections: There are OTC antiseptics that can reduce the risk of getting infections in minor burns, cuts, and wounds. Some examples include hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol.
  • Treatment of mouth and throat infections: Some throat lozenges have antiseptics that can help treat sore throats caused by bacterial infection.

Side Effects of Antiseptic Cream

Most antiseptic creams are safe and well-tolerated. But, like all medications, they can cause side effects. The most common side effects of antiseptic creams include the following:

  1. Skin irritation: Antiseptic creams can cause skin irritation in some individuals. This can be the case if the cream is used for a long period of time or if it is applied to sensitive areas of the skin.
  2. Allergic reactions: In some instances, antiseptic creams may trigger allergic reactions. The symptoms OF an allergic reaction may include itching, rashes, swelling, and difficulty breathing.
  3. Resistance: Long use of antiseptic creams can lead to the formation of resistance. That means the cream may no longer be effective in preventing infections.

It is crucial to seek medical advice if there are any side effects. In some situations, it might be necessary to stop using the cream and switch to an alternative medication.

Antiseptics vs disinfectants, antibacterials, and antibiotics

Antiseptics are used to clean areas of broken skin, intact areas of skin, and mucous membranes.

Antibacterials, disinfectants, and antibiotics are similar but slightly different uses. The following sections will explain these distinctions in more depth.

Disinfectants vs antiseptics

Antiseptics like peroxides are used by people to kill microorganisms on the skin and mucous membranes. Whereas antiseptics can kill germs that are on your skin, disinfectants can eliminate them from objects.

Antiseptics and disinfectants are both composed of chemicals. In fact, they have the same active ingredients. However, disinfectants usually have higher concentrations, which are not suitable for use on the skin and mucous membranes.

Antibacterials vs antiseptics

Antibacterials also contain chemicals that people use to clean areas of the skin. Sprays and soaps typically contain antibacterials.

Antibacterial sprays work by killing or stopping the growth of bacteria. They do not kill or prevent the growth of viruses, however.

Contrary to this, antiseptics can kill or stop the spread of viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Antibiotics vs antiseptics

Antibiotics are a type of prescription medication that is used to treat infections caused by bacteria.

Both antibiotics and antiseptics can treat bacterial infections. People can apply both types to the skin or mucous membranes.

However, a person can also take antibiotics orally to treat various infections inside the body.

Safety and precautions

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have found safety issues for 24 active ingredients in antiseptics. The FDA has delayed its decision on six additional ingredients at the request of manufacturers.

Those ingredients are:

  • chloroxylenol
  • alcohol (ethanol)
  • isopropyl alcohol
  • povidone-iodine
  • benzethonium chloride
  • benzalkonium chloride

The FDA has banned many active ingredients due to unknown long-term effects they have on the body. There is very little evidence of their effectiveness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that healthcare professionals adhere to all current recommendations regarding the use of antiseptics.

When using antiseptics at home, following all safety instructions on the bottle is essential.

Antiseptics with too high concentrations can cause skin irritation or chemical burns on the skin.

Over-the-counter antiseptics are not suitable for long-term use. One should not use them for more than a week.

It is recommended to avoid antiseptics on:

  • Large burns and wounds
  • areas where a foreign substance is stuck in the skin
  • Animal bites and scratches
  • Eye infections

It is not recommended to use disinfectants on the skin. Disinfectants are intended for cleaning surfaces, not for cleaning wounds.

If in doubt, one can seek advice from their healthcare provider to get clarification.


Antiseptics are for cleaning the skin, wounds and mucous membranes. Antiseptics have a lot in common with disinfectants, usually sharing the same active ingredients but in different amounts. However, a person should not apply disinfectants on the skin.

Antiseptics are usually effective in killing or preventing the growth of microorganisms, such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

There are some concerns about the safety of antiseptics, and the FDA has banned the use of 24 different active ingredients. The CDC still recommends that healthcare professionals continue using antiseptics as per the current guidelines.