Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2005.

What is an antiseptic?

An antiseptic is a chemical agent that slows or stops the growth of micro-organisms (germs) on external surfaces of the body and helps to prevent infections. Antiseptics should be distinguished from antibiotics that destroy micro-organisms inside the body, and from disinfectants, which destroy micro-organisms found on inanimate (non-living) objects. However, antiseptics are often referred to as skin disinfectants.

Most chemical agents can be used as both an antiseptic and a disinfectant. The purpose for which it is used is determined by its concentration. For example hydrogen peroxide 6% solution is used for cleansing wounds, while stronger solutions (> 30%) are used in industry as a bleach and oxidising agent.

Types of antiseptic

Antiseptics can be classified according to their chemical structure. Commonly used antiseptic groups include alcohols, quaternary ammonium compounds, chlorhexidine and other diguanides, antibacterial dyes, chlorine and hypochlorites, inorganic iodine compounds, metals, peroxides and permanganates, halogenated phenol derivatives and quinolone derivatives. The following table lists some of the agents within these groups.


Quaternary ammonium compound

Chlorhexidine and other diguanide

Antibacterial dye

Peroxide and permanganate

Halogenated phenol derivative

Quinolone derivative


Uses of antiseptic

Antiseptic is mainly used to reduce levels of microorganisms on the skin and mucous membranes. The skin and mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and vagina are home to a large number of micro-organisms (which are normally harmless).

Antiseptics are used for:

Are antiseptics effective and safe?

The effectiveness and complete safety of antiseptics has proved to be quite difficult to establish.

Due to concern about the potential for systemic absorption, in December 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that 24 ingredients — including triclosan —used in non-prescription (over-the-counter) antiseptic products (such as hand washes, hand scrubs/rubs and patient antiseptic preparations) intended for use by health care professionals in a hospital setting or other health care situations outside the hospital, are generally not recognised as safe and effective (often due to inadequate data). The 24 ingredients will be classified as new drugs requiring regulatory approval for marketing from December 2018. A decision was deferred on a further six ingredients (benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, chloroxylenol, alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and povidone-iodine).

Precautions when using antiseptic

Strong antiseptic should be diluted before it is applied to the skin, as concentrated products including chlorhexidine may cause chemical burns or severe irritant contact dermatitis. Prolonged contact with diluted antiseptic can also cause erosive contact dermatitis, as described with chlorhexidine-impregnated dressings.

Antiseptic bought from the pharmacy should not be used for more than one week. Stop using the antiseptic and see a doctor if:

Do not use antiseptics to treat sunburn or deep skin infection. Remember that antiseptic only reduces microorganisms on the surface of the tissue and that antibiotics will be needed to treat infection within the tissues.

People with allergies of any kind should check with a doctor or pharmacist before using an over-the-counter antiseptic product. Some antiseptics can irritate the skin and cause allergic contact dermatitis. Chlorhexidine has been reported to rarely cause anaphylaxis.

What about antibacterial soap?

In September 2016, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued a final rule establishing that over-the-counter (OTC) consumer antiseptic wash products containing certain active ingredients can no longer be marketed. Nineteen of these are listed, including triclosan and triclocarban. Regulators in other countries may follow with similar rulings. Reasons include:

Hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol can be used, if soap and water are not available.

New Zealand approved datasheets are the official source of information for these prescription medicines, including approved uses and risk information. Check the individual New Zealand datasheet on the Medsafe website.

Related information

Email Newsletter

Would you like to receive our dermatology updates by email?


Submit your images

We're seeking high-quality photos of skin diseases.  


Machine diagnosis

Watch DermNet's proposal to create a 'Skin Disease Image Recognition Tool' - winner of the 2017 'Clinicians' Challenge Active Award' by the NZ Ministry of Health and HiNZ.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
DermNet NZ Newsletter