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The word “germ” comes from the Latin word for seed. As previously discussed in earlier Bug of the Month articles, most “germs” are actually helpful, with only a relative handful capable of producing disease. Disease causing germs (pathogens) include some spores, prions, bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Agents that can kill or slow down the growth of some of these harmful germs include sunlight, (UVrays), cold, heat, (steam under pressure and dry heat), and chemical agents.

When speaking about chemical agents, there are four categories of germicides that cover a wide range of product chemistry and areas of use. They are sterilants, disinfectants, sanitizers and antiseptics.

Sterilants, disinfectants and sanitizers are chemicals used to kill most harmful germs on surfaces. Antiseptics are agents used to kill germs on the skin. Chemical germicides are registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and are classified as “pesticides”. “Pesticide” is defined by law in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) as any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest , and any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desicant. The term “pesticide” covers a wide spectrum of substances that are used to make our lives safer or more pleasurable. While most people think of pests as insects, the term can also refer to anything from viruses, bacteria, fungi, weeds, mice, bees and rats. More than 5000 antimicrobial products are currently registered with the EPA and sold in the marketplace. Nearly 60% of antimicrobial products are registered to control infectious microorganisms in hospitals and other health care environments.

Beginning in 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assumed regulatory responsibility for certain liquid and gaseous, (ethylene oxide), chemical agents used to sterilize reusable medical devices used in or on patients.


Germicides can be more effectively utilized if their ability to kill is understood. Each of the following terms indicates a degree of action against micro-organisms from most effective, to least. They are as follows:


Includes chemical agents or devices, (such as glutaraldehyde or an autoclave), that destroy all living things including spores, bacteria, viruses and fungi. Sterilants are absolute…there is no such thing as something being “almost sterile”.


A chemical agent that capable of killing pathogenic organisms but not spores. (also includes the terms germicide, bactericide, antibacterial, antimicrobial). Disinfectants are further classified as:

  1. minimal or limited claim, (capable of killing Salmonella cholerasuis or Staphylococcus aureus),
  2. broad spectrum , (capable of killing Salmonella and Staph.) and
  3. hospital, (proven germical efficacy against Salmonella, Staph. and Pseudomonas aeruginosa).

There is an additional disinfection category known as high level and usually is used to define a level of use safety for medical device decontamination on such things as endoscopes. Disinfectant products carry a significant number of kill claims on the label. The required efficacy shown above are the minimum required by the EPA. Disinfecting agents include ethanol (such as Lysol® Disinfectant Spray), quaternary ammonium compounds, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide.


An agent that reduces the number of bacteria to a safe or acceptable level. This means a 99.9% kill as set by public health requirements. This term is applied to agents used to control germs present in food service, food preparation and food processing areas. Alcohol hand sanitizers also fall into this category. Products that sanitize food contact surfaces must achieve a 99.999% kill against bacteria.


An agent that is generally applied to the skin and is used to prevent inflection and decay by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. Because these products are used in or on living humans or animals, they are considered drugs and are thus approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These agents include antibacterial hand soaps, isopropyl alcohol and iodine or iodophores.
On a final note...
It should be remembered that cleaning and disinfecting are not the same thing. Products listed as soaps or cleaners may help to remove germs from surfaces and hands due to mechanical action, but they do not actually kill them. Only products registered as sterilants, disinfectants, sanitizers or antiseptics kill germs. Alcohol hand sanitizers are classified as antiseptics and fall under FDA regulations.


The Germ Protection Center is possible thanks to the generous support of Lysol.

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