Antiseptics

Chemical substances that kill or slow the growth of germs

Antiseptics are chemical substances that kill or slow the growth of germs or micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and viruses). They may be put on different parts of the body such as on the skin (as creams, medicated soaps, medicated powders) and in the mouth and throat (as gargles, sprays and lozenges).

Antiseptics reduce microorganisms on the surface of these areas. They do not treat infections within these areas – these need to be treated with antibiotics. On this page you will find information on:

  • Antiseptics used on the skin
  • Antiseptics used in the mouth and throat

Antiseptics used on the skin

Antiseptics for the skin are available as creams, ointments, solutions, medicated powders and medicated soaps. They may be put on:

  • burns, to lessen the chance of infection
  • the skin before surgery, to reduce bacteria on the skin around the operation site. 

Antiseptics are also added to some hand cleansers, but plain soap is just as effective. Antiseptic hand sanitisers can be used without water. These are useful when it is not possible to wash your hands using soap and water (the preferred method for cleaning hands). Read more about hand washing.

Antiseptics are not very useful for minor skin infections, cuts and grazes.

  • Cuts and grazes are best treated with good skin hygiene measures such as cleaning the area with warm water and covering it with a plaster or bandage. Covering the wound prevents bugs from getting into it and causing an infection. There is no need to use an antiseptic as it may damage the skin and slow healing. Read more about cuts and grazes.
  • Most healthy people with minor skin infections do not need an antiseptic.

Do not use antiseptics:

  • to treat sunburn 
  • on wounds with particles embedded in them, that won’t wash away
  • on wounds caused by human or animal bites
  • on an eye injury.

Examples of antiseptics used on the skin

  • Hydrogen peroxide (Crystacide®, Crystaderm®)
  • Povidone iodine (Betadine®)
  • Chlorhexidine salts (Savlon®, Medipulv®)
  • Bepanthen First Aid®
  • Potassium permanganate 

Using antiseptics safely

Some antiseptics are quite strong and should be diluted before you apply it to your skin. If used undiluted, they may cause chemical burns or severe skin irritation. Check with your pharmacist if the antiseptic you are using needs to be diluted. Some products already come in the correct strength and don't require dilution.

Do not continue using antiseptics for more than one week, if the affected area has not healed or improved. See your doctor.  

Possible side effects

Antiseptics that are applied to the skin are mostly safe. However, sometimes antiseptics can cause irritation and allergic reactions with some people. There have been reports of severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis following use of chlorhexidine. If you notice a rash or your skin becomes itchy and red, stop using the antiseptic and contact your pharmacist or doctor.

Antiseptics used in the mouth and throat

Antiseptic gargles are used for mild infections of the mouth and gums. Sometimes an antiseptic gargle may be used to rinse the mouth, instead of cleaning with a toothbrush, if brushing is painful, or not possible.

Antiseptic lozenges and throat sprays are available to relieve a sore throat, but they may not be of benefit, and they can cause a sore tongue and sore lips. 

Examples

  • Cepacol®
  • Savacol®
  • Rivacol® 
  • Thymol glycerine®
  • Listerine®
  • Difflam-C®

Using antiseptic gargles safely

When using antiseptics to rinse your mouth or gargle, it is important to spit it out - try not to swallow after use. Some antiseptic gargles need to be diluted with water before use and others can be used without dilution. Always read the instructions on the package or check with your pharmacist about how to use your gargle. Ask your pharmacist about:

  • whether your gargle or mouthwash needs to be diluted or not
  • how much liquid to gargle with
  • how many times a day do you need to use the gargle or mouthwash.

For example, when using Savacol mouthwash, you must dilute 10–15 mL of mouthwash with 10–15 mL of warm water, then rinse your mouth or gargle for 1–2 minutes, then spit it out - try not to swallow. You can use the gargle up to 3 times daily after meals.

Learn more

The following links have more information on antiseptics.

Medsafe consumer information: Crystacide 
DermNet NZ: antiseptics; antibacterial soap; hydrogen peroxide; iodine; potassium permanganate.

References

  1. Should I prescribe a topical antiseptic cream instead of a topical antibiotic for minor skin infections? BPAC 2015
  2. Topical antibiotics: very few indications for use BPAC, 2014
  3. Antiseptic Dermnet, New Zealand
  4. Chlorhexidine - risk of anaphylaxis Medsafe, 2013
  5. Antibacterial soap no more effective than plain soap at reducing bacterial contamination Oxford University Press via ScienceDaily, 16 September 2015
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 11 Feb 2018