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Comparing Disinfectants

The disinfectant market offers a vast array of options for the discerning patron of cleaning supplies. While each brand offers a number of different individual products, they all fall into one of few categories based on the primary active disinfecting agent and it is worth understanding the mechanisms by which these agents perform their function: cleaning and destroying potentially dangerous pathogens on surfaces.

Alcohol Based Disinfectants-
These disinfectants use a high concentration of alcohol to kill bacteria, usually ethyl alcohol. Alcohol kills bacteria by weakening the membranes that hold bacteria and viruses together, which then dissolve with the addition of water. Unfortunately alcohol tends to be very volatile and loses efficacy quickly meaning surfaces will require more frequent treatment. It has the advantage of being less toxic than some other common disinfectants like bleach.

Chlorine Based Disinfectants-
These disinfectants have a high rate of effectiveness because chlorine kills bacteria and viruses in a number of different ways. Like alcohol, chlorine based disinfectants physically destroy the lipid membrane that form the skin of microorganisms. It also has an effect that poisons the internal structure of bacteria and viruses, rendering them harmless. Its dual properties also give it two different rates of mortality, killing many bacteria instantly while slowly poisoning any that may have been left behind. Chlorine products like bleach are quite poisonous to humans as well however and should be used with care.

Enzymatic Disinfectants-
These disinfectants use enzyme action to break down the lipid and protein membranes that surround bacteria and viruses, similar to chlorine. Rather than using a caustic action however, the enzymes in these disinfectants break down the membranes in a similar way to how the human body breaks down food in the digestive tract. Enzymatic action takes time however, so often need to be left to sit for a half hour for full effect. These disinfectants also have the advantage of being less toxic and unpleasant to handle as they don’t have the odor associated with chlorine or alcohol.

Phenol Based Disinfectants-
These chemicals cause damage to bacterial membranes causing them to leak and eventually die. Phenol based disinfectants usually require about 10 minutes to reach full effectiveness and are effective against some forms of bacteria resistant to other disinfectants. It is also less directly harmful to humans when it gets on skin, although it is a suspected carcinogen.