Difference Between Disinfectants and Antiseptics

Medically Reviewed by Sanjay Ponkshe on February 20, 2024
3 min read

Antiseptics and disinfectants are both widely used to control infections. They kill microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi using chemicals called biocides. Disinfectants are used to kill germs on nonliving surfaces. Antiseptics kill microorganisms on your skin.

There are many different types of disinfectants for use on surfaces. They are usually made for a specific purpose and are meant to be used a certain way because they don't work equally well against all microbes. Most disinfectants don't kill bacterial spores, for instance. 

Disinfectants can contain the same types of chemicals as antiseptics but in higher concentrations. Disinfectants should not be used on your skin. Chemical disinfectants include:

  • Alcohol
  • Formaldehyde
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds
  • Chlorine and chlorine compounds
  • Iodophors
  • Ortho-phthalaldehyde (OPA)
  • Phenolics
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Peracetic acid
  • Peracetic acid and hydrogen peroxide

Some other types of disinfectants include:

  • Ultraviolet radiation
  • Other germicides
  • Pasteurization
  • Metals as microbicides
  • Flushing- and washer-disinfectors

Disinfectants have to be used properly to be effective. The manufacturer will include instructions for proper use. Some factors that need to be considered are:

  • If the disinfectant works against the microbe you're targeting
  • If the disinfectant is at the right concentration
  • How long the disinfectant needs to remain on the surface
  • The disinfectant’s expiration date
  • Cleaning the area before you disinfect
  • Proper pH level and water temperature
  • Water hardness
  • If the disinfectant is safe to use on the surface you're disinfecting
  • Precautions to protect yourself from hazards

Antiseptics are widely used in health care to kill or stop the growth of microbes on the skin and mucous membranes. They are also used in public and home settings for treating minor wounds and cleaning hands. 

There is an important difference between the antiseptics used in health care settings and the ones available to consumers.

‌Health care antiseptics. These products are used by healthcare professionals in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, doctors' offices, and clinics. They are frequently used before medical procedures. Health care workers have more exposure because they use antiseptics more often than consumers do.

Consumer antiseptics. Consumer antiseptics are used in places such as daycares, schools, and homes. You can buy consumer antiseptics at most grocery stores and pharmacies.

Antiseptics are classified by their chemical structure. All of them kill or slow the growth of microbes on your skin. Some are better for specific purposes than others. Several types of these are:

  • Ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol: used to disinfect your skin before needle sticks and in hand sanitizer
  • Halogenated phenol derivative: used in cleaning solutions and medical-grade soaps
  • Chlorhexidine and other diguanides: used before operations
  • Antibacterial dye: used to treat burns and wounds
  • Peroxide and permanganate: used as a mouthwash and to disinfect your skin
  • Quaternary ammonium compound: used as a skin disinfectant

Antiseptics are used for a variety of reasons. Some of their most common uses are:

  • Washing and sanitizing hands
  • Preventing infections in minor wounds
  • Disinfecting skin before surgery or other medical procedures
  • Disinfecting mucous membranes before a medical procedure

The chemicals used in disinfectants and antiseptics can be dangerous. If ammonia and bleach are mixed, the result is a deadly gas called chloramine. If bleach is mixed with an acid, it forms chlorine gas. This is toxic

Bleach and hydrogen peroxide can cause an explosion if they are mixed. Long-term exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Some disinfectants and antiseptics are flammable.

Make sure you read and follow the instructions to decrease your risk of harm from using disinfectants and antiseptics. These generally include:

  • Never mix different products together.
  • Don't use disinfectants or antiseptics more often than recommended.
  • Use disinfectants in a well-ventilated area.
  • Wear gloves and wash your hands after using disinfectants.
  • Make sure you keep disinfectants and antiseptics away from children.
  • Store chemicals safely.
  • Only use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.

See your doctor if you have any symptoms from chemical exposure such as: