Uses of Antimicrobials | Chemical Safety Facts

Antimicrobials

Antimicrobials are substances or mixtures of substances used to destroy or suppress the growth of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi on inanimate objects and surfaces

Uses & Benefits

Every day, products containing antimicrobial ingredients help keep our homes, schools, offices, and other public places clean and hygienic. By helping to prevent the growth of unwanted microbes, antimicrobial chemicals can help keep people from getting sick.

Cleaning Products

Kitchen counters, office desks, bathroom sinks, and other high-traffic areas in homes and offices may accumulate germs that can make people sick. There is a difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing. Cleaning products without antibacterial/antimicrobial ingredients will clean the surface, but they will typically not kill the germs on it.  

Hospitals and Healthcare Settings

Antimicrobials in disinfectants and sterilizers kill bacteria and viruses to help keep patient, operating, and emergency rooms free of germs. Beyond these critical uses, hospitals and doctors’ offices also use antimicrobial products to regularly kill germs on floors, walls, and medical equipment. These are the everyday acts that help protect human health and help prevent the spread of infections that would otherwise pose real dangers to patients, doctors, and nurses.

Industrial Settings

Antimicrobial use protects industrial processes, water treatment systems, food processing facilities, and other critical operations. For example, cooling towers, which regulate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning in apartment and office buildings or large industrial facilities, are especially prone to microbial growth. If unchecked and untreated, microbe-infested waters can disperse into the air. Bacteria can also cause slime buildup within the systems resulting in malfunctions. This is why cooling water systems must be treated with antimicrobials to kill dangerous bacteria that could make people sick and cause costly damage.

Antimicrobial Pesticides

These types of pesticides [PDF] help slow the growth of human pathogenic microorganisms and are used in food processing plants, dairies, breweries, poultry houses and other animal feeding operations, hospitals, medical and dental clinics and offices, municipal drinking water and water treatment facilities, swimming pools, spas, schools, day-care centers, public access facilities, and homes.

Safety Information

Antimicrobial products are regulated by various U.S. and state government agencies, depending on their intended use.

EPA Regulations

  • Antimicrobial pesticides are regulated by EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)
  • Antimicrobials found in household and industrial products are regulated as pesticides by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In order to bring an antimicrobial product to market, it must be approved by the EPA. In its approval process, EPA assesses the effectiveness of the product and the claims made about the product’s intended use. 

Antimicrobial products are strictly regulated. Manufacturers of antimicrobial products must provide EPA the product label and data on chemistry, toxicology, and efficacy, in order to obtain an EPA registration, which is required before marketing the antimicrobial product. The label includes a list of the active ingredients, directions for product use, and precautionary and handling information. Among other things, the EPA’s decision to register a product is based on whether that product will perform the specific function for which it is being registered without causing unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.

Answering Questions

What’s the difference between “Antimicrobial” and “Antibacterial”?

Both antibacterial and antimicrobial products can be an effective part of hygiene.  Antibacterial products help to prevent or kill bacteria on surfaces. Antibacterial products may have labels that say they disinfect, kill bacteria or sanitize. Antimicrobials (also called biocides and antimicrobial pesticides) are substances that kill or slow the spread of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi, and they are crucial in helping to prevent and stop the spread of harmful microbes. Antimicrobials also help to keep harmful pathogens out of our food and protect drinking water.

What is antimicrobial resistance? How do I prevent it?

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when microorganisms change or develop a resistance when they are exposed to antimicrobial drugs (for example, antibiotics and antifungals). Antimicrobial resistance may prevent medicines from being effective, which can cause infections to persist and increase the risk of spreading infections to others. Antimicrobial resistance can be decreased by washing hands, covering coughs, staying home when sick, and getting recommended vaccinations.

Does the use of hand soap or hand sanitizer products containing antimicrobials create antimicrobial-resistant bacteria?

Products containing antimicrobials are used in home, office, and healthcare settings to control bacteria and help prevent people from getting sick. With respect to personal care products, there has been no credible, scientifically supported link between the use of antimicrobial soaps and the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

How can a company claim that a specific product should be used effectively during the COVID-19 outbreak?

During an outbreak of a new virus like COVID-19, there are no existing products on the market that can claim to kill it. This is because the virus was not available to test, and it can take more than one year to get a viral claim approved by a regulatory agency. For this reason, EPA has enacted a “hierarchy-based” policy, meaning that if a company’s product has been found to be effective against harder-to-kill viruses, it is likely to kill a virus like COVID-19. The American Chemistry Council’s Center for Biocide Chemistries has developed a list of EPA-approved products that have been proven effective against viruses that are harder to kill and which may be effective at killing the Novel Coronavirus.