Disinfectant vs. Antiseptic: Similar Concept, Different Meaning

There has been an increased demand for antiseptic and disinfectant products to kill germs and keep illness at bay. While these are important tools for hygiene, they aren’t interchangeable, both in terms of word usage and actual usage.

Disinfectant (Cleaning product) vs Antiseptic (Toothpaste and toothbrush) with definitions Disinfectant (Cleaning product) vs Antiseptic (Toothpaste and toothbrush) with definitions
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Antiseptic vs. Disinfectant: Same Purpose, Different Use

Both antiseptics and disinfectants are chemical agents that kill microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) and prevent their growth and spread, which can help to minimize potential illness or infection. The chemicals used in antiseptics and disinfectants are referred to as biocides.

Different Uses for Antiseptics vs. Disinfectants

Antiseptics are used on living organisms, like human skin. This can include:

  • Washing your hands
  • Cleaning mucus membranes 
  • Preventing infections after getting a cut, scratch or burn
  • Treating throat or mouth infections (mouthwash and lozenges)
  • Cleaning skin before surgery

Disinfectants are specifically intended for inanimate objects. This includes:

  • Wiping down tables
  • Cleaning handrails and doorknobs
  • Ultraviolet boxes for phones

Antiseptic Examples

You’re probably using forms of antiseptics as you’re washing up in the morning and getting ready for bed. Some everyday examples of antiseptics include:

  • Toothpaste
  • Mouthwash
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Body soap
  • Throat lozenges

Disinfectant Examples

When you’re wiping down your desk or cleaning fingerprint smudges off your windows, you’re likely using some form of disinfectant. Common forms of disinfectant include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Alcohol
  • Chlorine
  • Pasteurization
  • Ultraviolet radiation

Why They Aren’t Interchangeable

If antiseptics and disinfectants serve the same function, why not use one for the other? It’s true that some active chemicals, like hydrogen peroxide and alcohol, appear in both antiseptics and disinfectants.

However, antiseptics have a much lower concentration of active chemicals, making them safer for you. Using a disinfectant to clean your skin could lead to irritation or serious injury. At the same time, using hand sanitizer to wipe a table wouldn’t be effective, but it would be plenty messy.

Related Germ Killing Terms

Along with antiseptics and disinfectants, you may see other words that are frequently used interchangeably with the general idea of hygiene and killing germs.

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Sanitize

Sanitizing refers to reducing the number of germs on an object or surface to a safe level as deemed by public health standards. Sanitizing and disinfecting often go hand-in-hand.

Sterilize

Sterilization refers to eliminating all microbial life on an object or surface. This is unlikely and impossible in your home and is more common in health care environments.

Antibacterial

Antibacterial describes anything that eliminates bacteria and prevents their growth. All of the above are antibacterial, but they also tend to eliminate other microorganisms, like viruses and fungi.

Watch Where You Spray That!

Antiseptics and disinfectants are substantial in maintaining your health and general cleanliness. Just make sure you use them for their designated purposes. You don’t want to rinse out your throat with chlorine; trust us. Some other things that you don’t want to mix up: