Outline the pharmacology of antiseptics and disinfectants

Key Definitions

Relevant definitions for antiseptics include:

  • Cleaning
    Physical removal of foreign material.
    • Used for non-critical items, which come into contact with healthy skin but not mucous membranes (e.g. blood pressure cuff)
  • Decontamination
    Destruction of contaminants such that they cannot reach a susceptible site in sufficient number to cause harm.
  • Disinfection
    Elimination of all pathological organisms, excluding spores.
    • Used for semi-critical items, which are those that contact mucous membranes but do not break the blood barrier (e.g. endoscopes, laryngoscopes)
  • Sterilisation
    Elimination of all forms of microbial life, including spores.
    • Used for critical items, which are those that enter sterile or vascular tissue and pose a high risk of infection (e.g. surgical instruments, vascular and urinary catheters)

Antiseptic Agents

Drug Isopropyl Alcohol Chlorhexidine Povidone iodine
Pharmaceutics Typically 60-90% - requires some water to denature protein. Flammable. May be aqueous or combined with isopropyl alcohol. Iodine combined with a polymer (povidone) to enhance water solubility
Antiviral Properties Poor antiviral Poor antiviral Good antiviral
Antibacterial Properties Broad spectrum antibacterial Broad spectrum antibacterial and antifungal Broad spectrum including fungi, spores (unlike iodine), and tuberculosis
Toxic Irritant on mucous membranes and open wounds Hypersensitivity Hypersensitivity
Other Persistent antiseptic effect Requires continual release of iodine to achieve effect. Inactivated by organic substances. Stains.


  1. Petkov V. Essential Pharmacology For The ANZCA Primary Examination. Vesselin Petkov. 2012.
  2. Sabir N, Ramachandra V. Decontamination of anaesthetic equipment. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain. (2004). 4(4), 103–106.
Last updated 2017-08-11

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