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Antimicrobials

Topic Fact Sheet

What are antimicrobials?

Antimicrobial products kill or slow the spread of microorganisms. Microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, protozoans, and fungi such as mold and mildew.1 You may find antimicrobial products in your home, workplace, or school.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates antimicrobial products as pesticides, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates antimicrobial products as drugs/antiseptics. As pesticides, antimicrobial products are used on objects such as countertops, toys, grocery carts, and hospital equipment. As antiseptics, antimicrobial products are used to treat or prevent diseases on people, pets, and other living things.

If a product shows "EPA" anywhere on the label, you know it's a pesticide and NOT meant for use on the body. This fact sheet will focus on antimicrobials used as pesticides.

If a product label claims to kill, control, repel, mitigate or reduce a pest, it is a pesticide regulated by the U.S. EPA.2 When manufacturers make this kind of claim on the label, they must also include:

Pesticides Drugs & Antiseptics
Used on surfaces, non-living things Used in or on living things
Example: wipes for the kitchen or bathroom Example: hand-sanitizing wipes
Regulated by the U.S. EPA Regulated by the U.S. FDA

Bleach is a common name for products that contain sodium hypochlorite. Bleach may be a pesticide, a cleaner, or both.

Bleach as a pesticide Bleach as a cleaner
As a pesticide, bleach is used to disinfect surfaces. The label will include specific directions about how to use the product effectively. There will be an EPA registration number on the container. As a general-purpose cleaner or whitening agent, bleach is used on household surfaces and laundry. In this case, it is not acting as a pesticide so it does not require EPA registration.3,4 Pest-killing instructions will not be included on the label.

What types of antimicrobial pesticides are there?

There are two general categories for antimicrobial pesticides: those that address microbes in public health settings, and those that do not. "Public health products" are designed to handle infectious microbes. See Table 1.

Table 1. Sites of application for antimicrobial pesticides1

Non-public health settings Public health settings
Microbes that may cause objects to spoil or rot Microbes that may cause people to get sick
  • cooling towers
  • fuel
  • wood textiles
  • paint
  • paper products
  • bathrooms
  • kitchens
  • homes
  • hospitals
  • restaurants

There are three types of public health antimicrobials: sterilizers, disinfectants, and sanitizers. See Table 2.

Sanitizers are the weakest public-health antimicrobials. They reduce bacteria on surfaces.1 Some sanitizers may be used on food-contact surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards, or children's high chairs. The label will indicate how a sanitizer can be used. Some sanitizers can be used only for non-food contact surfaces like toilet bowls and carpets, or air.5,6

Disinfectants kill or prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. Some disinfectants target specific viruses.5,6,7 Disinfectants that kill microbes are called microbicides, but if they only stop microbial growth, without killing the microbe, they are called microbistats.9 Disinfectants are the preferred public-health antimicrobial for common surfaces in medical settings. Disinfectants are also used in residential settings. Different products purify swimming pools and disinfect household surfaces such as linens, toilets, and bathtubs. Whether disinfectants are used in medical or residentials settings, or elsewhere, they may not be used on surfaces that come in contact with food.

Table 2. Three main types of public health antimicrobial pesticidesa

Sanitizer Disinfectant Sterilizer
Effective against 99.9%
  • bacteria
100%
  • bacteria
  • fungi
  • certain viruses
100%
  • bacteria
  • fungi
  • viruses
  • spores
Time required for effectiveness 30 seconds - 5 minutes Generally 10 minutes Variable
Locations / Uses Household surfaces
Food contact surfaces
Household surfaces
Medical settings
Medical instruments
Research supplies
Effect Limited microbicide Microbicide
Irreversible microbistat
Microbicide
Formulations Sprays, liquids, gels, granules, etc. Sprays, liquids, gels, granules, etc. Liquid, gases

aThis table contains generalized information. Always read the product label to determine where and how a product should be used.5,7,10,11

Sterilizers are the strongest type of public health antimicrobial product. In addition to bacteria, algae, and fungi, they also control hard-to-kill spores.5 Many sterilizers are restricted-use pesticides. These require applicator training and certification. Sterilizers are used in medical and research settings when the presence of microbes must be prevented as much as possible. In addition to chemical sterilizers, high-pressure steam and ovens are also used to sterilize items.5

What do I need to know?

References:

  1. What are Antimicrobial Pesticides?; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2010.
  2. Title 40, Part 152 - Pesticide Registration and Classification Procedures, Protection of the Environment; Code of Federal Regulations. http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_10/40cfr152_10.html (accessed Dec 2010), updated 2007.
  3. Anthrax Spore Decontamination Using Bleach (Sodium hypochlorite); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2010.
  4. Label Review Manual - Chapter 2: What is a Pesticide?; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2006.
  5. Antimicrobial Pesticide Products; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2010.
  6. Pesticide Labeling Questions & Answers; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, accessed Dec 2010. updated Dec 2010.
  7. Antimicrobial Products Registered for Use Against the H1N1 Flu and Other Influenza A Viruses on Hard Surfaces; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2010.
  8. Selected EPA-registered Disinfectants; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2010.
  9. Gilbert, P.; McBain, A. J. Potential Impacts of Increased Use of Biocides in Consumer Products on Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 16, 2, 189-208.
  10. Rutala, W. A.; Weber, D. J. Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Health Care Facilities, 2008. U.S. Center for Disease Control, Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC). http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/Disinfection_Sterilization/4_0efficacyDS.html (accessed Dec 2010), updated Dec 2010.
  11. Sanitizer Test for Inanimate Surfaces; U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2010.

NPIC fact sheets are designed to answer questions that are commonly asked by the general public about pesticides that are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). This document is intended to be educational in nature and helpful to consumers for making decisions about pesticide use.

Related Topics:

What are pests?

Learn about a pest

Identify a pest

Control a pest

Integrated Pest Management

What are pesticides?

Herbicides

Disinfectants

Fungicides

Insecticides

Natural and Biological Pesticides

Repellents

Rodenticides

Other types of pesticides

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