Also called chemical disinfectants

Disinfectants are used to clean surfaces only. Do not apply disinfectants to your skin or swallow them – they can cause severe burns and even death.

What are disinfectants?

Disinfectants are chemicals used to clean surfaces where germs live, such as doorknobs, tables, light switches, bench tops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, floors, taps and sinks.

Commonly used disinfectants include hypochlorite (household bleach), activated hydrogen peroxide (0.5%) or alcohol such as ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. 

Most household surfaces can be cleaned with soap and water. Sometimes soap and water is not enough and a disinfectant is required. Not all disinfectants are equal – different disinfectants have different uses, actions and effectiveness on bacteria, fungi and viruses. 

Caution: Do not apply disinfectants to your skin or swallow them 
Disinfectants are for use on surfaces only. Do not apply disinfectants to your skin or swallow them – they can cause severe burns and even death. To kill germs on your skin, an antiseptic may be used. Read more about antiseptics

Note: It is safe to use very diluted bleach (also called bleach baths) on your skin for eczema, if your doctor has recommended this. The bleach must be carefully diluted in the correct amount of water. Here is guidance on how to prepare a bleach bath for eczema.     

How to use disinfectants correctly

For disinfectants to be safe and effective, it is important they are used correctly.

  • Follow the instructions on the packaging.
  • Surfaces will need about 10 seconds contact with the disinfectant for it to work well. 
  • It is best to use disposable paper towels or a disposable cloth and gloves when using disinfectants. 
  • Some disinfectants can damage some surfaces. Check the disinfectant you are using is safe on the surface you are cleaning. 

How to use disinfectants safely

  • Wear disposable or rubber cleaning gloves when using disinfectants. Disinfectants can irritate your skin.
  • It's recommended that you have good ventilation (air circulating) when you use some disinfectants so that fumes can blow away.
  • Never mix disinfectants together because this can cause nasty chemical reactions.
  • Avoid contact with your eyes. If disinfectant gets into your eye, wash it out with lots of water. If it is painful, see your doctor. 
  • Disinfectants usually have child-resistant caps to prevent poisoning. But, it is also important to keep disinfectants out of reach and out of sight of children and pets. 
  • If anyone has swallowed disinfectant call the National Poisons Centre 0800 POISON (0800 764 766) – any time, day or night. 
  • Remember 'natural’, ‘organic’, and ‘environmentally friendly’ products can still harm you and other people, so it's important to follow the label on these products too to make sure you use and store them safely.


  1. Cleaning and disinfecting your home Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 30 Apr 2020