AskDefine | Define disinfectant

Dictionary Definition

disinfectant adj : preventing infection by inhibiting the growth or action of microorganisms [syn: bactericidal, germicidal] n : an agent (as heat or radiation or a chemical) that destroys microorganisms that might carry disease [syn: germicide, antimicrobic, antimicrobial]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Referring to something that contains a disinfectant or has the properties of a disinfectant.
    I washed repeatedly with a disinfectant soap but I still caught the flu.


  1. A substance which kills germs and/or viruses.
    The scalpels were soaked in disinfectant before the operation so disease wouldn't be spread.

Extensive Definition

Disinfectants are antimicrobial agents that are applied to non-living objects to destroy microorganisms, the process of which is known as disinfection.
  • Disinfection may be defined as: Cleaning an article of some or all of the pathogenic organisms which may cause infection
Disinfectants should generally be distinguished from antibiotics that destroy microorganisms within the body, and from antiseptics, which destroy microorganisms on living tissue. Sanitizers are substances that reduce the number of microorganisms to a safe level.One official and legal version states that a sanitizer must be capable of killing 99.999%, known as a 5 log reduction, of a specific bacterial test population, and to do so within 30 seconds. The main difference between a sanitizer and a disinfectant is that at a specified use dilution, the disinfectant must have a higher kill capability for pathogenic bacteria compared to that of a sanitizer. Very few disinfectants and sanitizers can sterilise (the complete elimination of all microorganisms), and those that can depend entirely on their mode of application. Bacterial endospores are most resistant to disinfectants, however some viruses and bacteria also possess some tolerance.


A perfect disinfectant would offer complete and full sterilisation, without harming other forms of life, be inexpensive, and non-corrosive. Unfortunately ideal disinfectants do not exist. Most disinfectants are also, by their very nature, potentially harmful (even toxic) to humans or animals. They should be treated with appropriate care. Most come with safety instructions printed on the packaging, which should be read in full before using the disinfectant. Post modern household disinfectants contain Bitrex, an exceptionally bitter substance designed to discourage ingestion, as an added safety measure. Those that are used indoors should never be mixed with other cleaning products as chemical reactions can occur. They are frequently used in hospitals, dental surgeries, kitchens and bathrooms to kill infectious organisms.
The choice of the disinfectant to be used depends on the particular situation. Some disinfectants have a wide spectrum (kill nearly all microorganisms), whilst others kill a smaller range of disease-causing organisms but are preferred for other properties (they may be non-corrosive, non-toxic, or inexpensive).
The disinfecting properties of sunlight (ultra-violet) are powerful. Rather than total reliance on chemicals, basic hygiene - a pillar of food safety - is important in the effort to control bacteria since they generally prefer a warm-moist-dark environment. There are arguments for creating or maintaining conditions which are not conducive to bacterial survival and multiplication, rather than attempting to kill them with chemicals. Bacteria have a very rapid multiplication rate, which enables them to evolve rapidly. Should some bacteria survive a chemical attack, they give rise to the next generation. Thus they are able to develop resistance to hostile chemicals. For this reason, some question the wisdom of impregnating cloths, cutting boards and worktops in the home with bactericidal chemicals.

Types of disinfectants


Alcohols, usually ethanol or isopropanol, are sometimes used as a disinfectant, but more often as an antiseptic (the distinction being that alcohol tends to be used on living tissue rather than nonliving surfaces). They have wide microbicidal activity, are non corrosive, but can be a fire hazard. They also have limited residual activity due to evaporation, which results in brief contact times, and have a limited activity in the presence of organic material. Alcohols are more effective combined with purified water—70% isopropyl alcohol or 70% ethyl alcohol is more effective than 90% alcohol, because the higher water content allows for greater diffusion through the cell membrane. Alcohol is effective against resistant fungal and bacterial spores. It has very low toxicity to higher organisms such as human cells, which have more complex and protective membranes.
High-intensity shortwave ultraviolet light can be used for disinfecting smooth surfaces such as dental tools, but not porous materials that are opaque to the light such as wood or foam. Ultraviolet light fixtures are often present in microbiology labs, and are activated only when there are no occupants in a room (e.g., at night).

Relative effectiveness of disinfectants

One way to compare disinfectants is to compare how well they do against a known disinfectant and rate them accordingly. Phenol is the standard, and the corresponding rating system is called the "Phenol coefficient". The disinfectant to be tested is compared with phenol on a standard microbe (usually Salmonella typhi or Staphylococcus aureus). Disinfectants that are more effective than phenol have a coefficient > 1. Those that are less effective have a coefficient < 1.

Home disinfectants

By far the most cost-effective home disinfectant is the commonly used chlorine bleach (a 5% solution of Sodium hypochlorite) which is effective against most common pathogens, including such difficult organisms tuberculosis (mycobacterium tuberculosis), hepatitis B and C, fungi, and antibiotic-resistant strains of staphylococcus and enterococcus. It even has some disinfectant action against parasitic organisms . Positives are that it kills the widest range of pathogens of any inexpensive disinfectant; it is extremely powerful against viruses and bacteria at room temperature; it is commonly available and inexpensive; and it breaks down quickly into harmless components (primarily table salt and oxygen). Negatives are that it is caustic to the skin and eyes, especially at higher concentrations; like many common disinfectants, it degrades in the presence of organic substances; it has a strong odor; it is not effective against giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium; and extreme caution must be taken not to combine it with ammonia or any acid (such as vinegar as this may cause noxious gases to be formed). The best practice is not to add anything to household bleach except water. Dilute bleach can be tolerated on the skin for a period of time by most persons, as witnessed by the long exposure to extremely dilute "chlorine" (actually sodium or calcium hypochlorite) many children get in swimming pools.
To use chlorine bleach effectively, the surface or item to be disinfected must be clean. In the bathroom or when cleaning after pets, special caution must be taken to wipe up urine first, before applying chlorine, to avoid toxic gas by-products. A 1 to 20 solution in water is effective simply by being wiped on and left to dry. The user should wear rubber gloves and, in tight airless spaces, goggles. If parasitic organisms are suspected, it should be applied at 1 to 1 concentration, or even undiluted; extreme caution must be taken to avoid contact with eyes and mucous membranes. Protective goggles and good ventilation are mandatory when applying concentrated bleach.
Commercial bleach tends to lose strength over time, whenever the container is opened. Old containers of partially used bleach may no longer have the labeled concentration.
Where one does not want to risk the corrosive effects of bleach, alcohol-based disinfectants are reasonably inexpensive and quite safe. The great drawback to them is their rapid evaporation; sometimes effective disinfection can be obtained only by immersing an object in the alcohol.
The use of some antimicrobials such as triclosan, particularly in the uncontrolled home environment, is controversial because it may lead to the germs becoming resistant. Chlorine bleach and alcohol do not cause resistance because they are so completely lethal, in a very direct physical way.


External links

disinfectant in Arabic: ديسينفيكتانت
disinfectant in Bulgarian: Дезинфекция
disinfectant in Czech: Dezinfekce
disinfectant in Danish: Desinfektion
disinfectant in German: Desinfektion
disinfectant in Esperanto: Seninfektigo
disinfectant in French: Désinfectant
disinfectant in Ido: Desinfekto
disinfectant in Italian: Disinfezione
disinfectant in Hebrew: חיטוי
disinfectant in Dutch: Ontsmettingsmiddel
disinfectant in Japanese: 消毒
disinfectant in Polish: Dezynfekcja
disinfectant in Portuguese: Desinfecção
disinfectant in Romanian: Dezinfectare
disinfectant in Russian: Дезинфекция
disinfectant in Simple English: Disinfectant
disinfectant in Slovak: Dezinfekcia
disinfectant in Finnish: Desinfiointi
disinfectant in Swedish: Desinfektion
disinfectant in Turkish: Dezenfektasyon
disinfectant in Ukrainian: Дезинфікуючі засоби
disinfectant in Chinese: 消毒

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

acaricide, anthelmintic, antibiotic, antiseptic, bactericide, bleaching powder, bug bomb, carbamate insecticide, carbolic acid, chemosterilant, chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticide, chlorine, cleaner, cleanser, contact poison, cresol, decontaminator, defoliant, eradicant, formaldehyde, fumigant, fumigator, fungicide, germicidal, germicide, herbicide, hypochlorous acid, insect powder, insecticide, mercuric chloride, microbicide, miticide, organic chlorine, organic phosphate insecticide, pesticide, phenol, poison, purifier, rat poison, roach paste, roach powder, rodenticide, sanitizer, sodium hypochlorite, stomach poison, systemic, systemic insecticide, toxic, toxicant, toxin, venin, venom, vermicide, virus, weed killer
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