What Is an Antimicrobial?

Woman using antimicrobial wipes to clean the surface of her phone

We live in an era where bacteria and other microbes are becoming resistant to antibiotics. This is due to the overuse and misuse of these drugs. As a result, there’s a need for new and innovative antimicrobial agents to combat these resistant strains of bacteria. So, what is an antimicrobial? 

What Is an Antimicrobial?

An antimicrobial is an agent that kills or slows the growth of microbes. These agents include chemicals, such as disinfectants and antibiotics, as well as physical agents, such as heat and ultraviolet (UV) light. Antimicrobials are used to treat infections caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa.Person applying hand sanitizer on their hands

When an antimicrobial lands on a microbe, it may kill the microbe outright or inhibit its growth. The mode of action of an antimicrobial depends on its chemical structure. Some antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, work by interfering with the ability of microbes to synthesize proteins. Others work by rupturing the cell membranes of microbes, causing them to leak and die.

The application of these agents differs from one setting to another. For example, some are sprayed to prevent the spread of infection in hospital equipment, while others are added to water or food to prevent spoilage. In some cases, antimicrobials are used to treat infections in people and animals.

How Antimicrobials Work

Some antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, inhibit the growth of microorganisms and ensure their death. Antibiotics are drugs that fight bacterial infections. It works by either killing bacteria or preventing them from multiplying. When it comes into contact with bacteria, an antibiotic can kill it or stop it from reproducing and making more bacteria.

Not all antibiotics work against all bacteria. To be effective, an antibiotic must be able to kill the bacteria or stop it from reproducing without harming the body’s own cells or becoming resistant to the antibiotic. Therefore, it is essential to take the antibiotic exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

The Most Common Types of Antibacterial Products

These products are classified according to their work and their purpose. When you go to the store, you will see a variety of products with different names and purposes. Here are some of the most common types of antibacterial products:


Antiseptics are agents that kill or prevent the growth of microorganisms on the living tissue. They are used to cleanse wounds, burns, and cuts. Antiseptics are also used to disinfect equipment or surfaces on which microorganisms may be present.

The most common antiseptics are alcohols, such as ethanol and isopropyl alcohol. Other antiseptics include chlorhexidine, hydrogen peroxide, and iodine. Some contain essential oils to mask the smell of alcohol and prevent the evaporation of the liquid. They are common ingredients in hand sanitizers, wipes, and gels.Woman using antimicrobial wipes to clean the surface of her phone

For an antiseptic to be effective, it must contain at least 60% alcohol. Antiseptics with a lower concentration of alcohol are not as effective in killing germs and may not be worth the cost.


Disinfectants are agents that kill or prevent the growth of microorganisms on inanimate objects, such as surfaces, equipment, and clothing. They are used to cleanse areas that may be contaminated with bacteria, such as toilets, door handles, and countertops.

Disinfectants are usually liquids, such as bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds, or alcohol. However, they can also be in the form of wipes, gels, and sprays. Disinfectants are very good at killing microorganisms, especially pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

However, disinfectants are not effective against all microorganisms. They are also not effective in killing spores, which are resistant to many disinfectants. Therefore, it is essential to read the product’s label to determine its efficacy.

Antibacterial Soaps

Antibacterial soaps contain an antibacterial agent, such as triclosan, to kill or prevent the growth of bacteria. They are used to cleanse the hands or body to prevent the spread of infection.

Antibacterial soaps are available in liquid, gel, and bar form. However, liquid soaps are the most commonly used. Antibacterial soaps are generally safe and effective since they kill bacteria that can cause illness. However, overuse of these soaps may lead to the development of antibiotic resistance.

Most of the time, regular soap is just as effective as antibacterial soap. Therefore, it is not necessary to use antibacterial soap unless prescribed by a healthcare provider. You can just use regular soap and water to cleanse your hands or body.

What Are the Potential Risks of Using Antimicrobials?

Despite the huge benefits that these products offer, there are also some potential risks associated with their use that every consumer should be aware of. The most common risks associated with antimicrobials are:Woman spraying a disinfectant to clean her walls

  • Some of these products cause allergic reactions that may be mild, such as skin irritation, or severe, such as anaphylaxis.
  • Some antimicrobials are known to be toxic, such as bleach, and should be used with caution.
  • Overuse of antimicrobials can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. For instance, triclosan, an antibacterial agent, is known to cause antibiotic resistance.
  • Some antimicrobials may disrupt the normal flora of the skin, which can lead to infections such as candidiasis.

Precaution When Using Antimicrobials

Antimicrobials are still safe to use when used as directed despite the potential risks. However, to minimize the risks associated with their use, it is important to take the following precautions:

  • Always read the product label before using any antimicrobial product. This will help you to determine the correct amount to use and the precautions that need to be taken.
  • Do not use antimicrobial products more often than necessary. Using them more often than necessary can increase the chances of developing resistance.
  • Do not use antimicrobial products on open wounds or cuts. This can cause irritation and delay healing.
  • Do not use antimicrobial products on children unless prescribed by a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Natural Antimicrobials?

Natural antimicrobials are substances that are derived from nature that have the ability to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms. Some examples of natural antimicrobials include vinegar, salt, and lemon juice.

What Are the Different Types of Antimicrobials?

The different antimicrobials include disinfectants, antibacterial soaps, and natural antimicrobials. They all have different purposes and use different active ingredients.


Antimicrobials are essential in our day-to-day lives. They help to keep us safe from harmful microorganisms that can cause illness. However, it is important to use them cautiously to avoid the development of resistance. Nevertheless, when used as directed, antimicrobials are generally safe and effective.