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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Disinfectants

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

When we hear the word ‘disinfectant,’ I’d say the vast majority of us think of brands such as Lysol or Clorox ̶ products you can find on virtually any supermarket shelf.

The truth is that there are almost as many brands and types of disinfectant on the market as there are stars in the sky. Well, maybe not that many, but let’s just say a lot! So how do you even know what kind of disinfectant you need? Or how to choose the best disinfectant?


Before we delve into the various types of disinfectant, as well as their pros and cons, it’s worth keeping mind this warning, from China’s Occupational and Health Council in Hong Kong:

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“In choosing a disinfectant, both the disinfecting properties and safety have to be considered. Many chemicals are corrosive, toxic or irritants. If used improperly or not according to instructions on the proper protection, accidents can happen.”


What Are Disinfectants, Exactly?

Now, if you answered, "Something that kills germs," you’d be correct...sort of. In fact, disinfectants are antimicrobial substances that can be applied to inanimate surfaces to kill microorganisms that might be present. However, contrary to popular belief, disinfectants can not eradicate every microorganism in existence, in particular highly-resistant bacterial spores!


And unlike antibiotics, which target microorganisms within the body, disinfectants operate externally. Generally speaking disinfectants are designed to kill bacteria as quickly as possible, which is why they’re used so often in hospitals and other health care facilities.


And disinfectants don’t just kill bacteria. They are also often extremely effective in eliminating viruses, fungi, mold or mildews on surfaces and inanimate objects.

Plus, every disinfectant on the market must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Failure to do so can result in some pretty serious governmental push-back.

The Main Types of Disinfectant

As we said, there are all sorts of disinfectants, but there are roughly seven major types in use today. Here is a brief run-down of the categories:

  1. Alcohols Alcohol is very effective when it comes to combating bacteria and can also be readily combined with water, although fairly high concentrations are called for if you’re disinfecting wet surfaces. The drawback to using alcohols is that are highly flammable and tend to evaporate quickly. Plus, their effectiveness is limited when it comes to dealing with organic matter, such as blood.

  2. Quaternary Ammonium Compounds These compounds (or ‘quats’ as they are commonly known) are widely used in hospitals and institutions, not so much because of their efficacy but because they’re relatively cheap and are effective against a broad of microorganisms. An added plus is that quats can be combined with a broad array of detergents for both cleaning and disinfecting use.