Beyond the Products

Antimicrobial products: How they work and when to use them

In the past century, our scientific understanding of microorganisms, pathogens, and infectious diseases has increased by leaps and bounds. As part of that development, more and more antimicrobial products have entered the consumer market. Now more than ever, we rely on these products to keep our homes, schools, and businesses safe.

To help you make the best decisions for your situation, the experts at Spruce Industries have created a guide to antimicrobial products. This article covers how antimicrobial products work, types of antimicrobial ingredients you’ll find in these products, and the pros and cons of using them.

How antimicrobial products work

By understanding how antimicrobial products work, we can make better choices for our cleaning and disinfecting practices. Below, we dig into the science behind these products.

What makes antimicrobial products effective?

First of all, we need to have a proper understanding of “antimicrobial.” Antimicrobial agents fight, repel, or destroy microorganisms. Four different kinds of products fall under the antimicrobial umbrella: antibacterials (or antibiotics), antifungals, antivirals, and antiparasitics. Each type of antimicrobial agent fights specific microbes. For example, antibacterial products kill bacteria, but they do not claim to kill fungi.

In general, most antimicrobial agents attack germs or other microbes at the cellular level. In many instances, for example, antibacterials destroy the fatty lipids that allow bacteria to reproduce. Antibacterial products fit into two primary groups: those that leave residue behind and those that do not.

Some antibacterial products, such as hand sanitizers, rely on alcohol to kill bacteria. These products evaporate quickly after application. Because of this, you need to make sure you apply a sufficient quantity of the product. Disinfecting products need to remain wet on surfaces for a specific amount of time in order to kill microbes. This amount of time is what we call “dwell time.”

In contrast, some antimicrobial chemicals, such as triclosan and triclocarban, leave a residue behind to attack bacteria. In high enough concentrations, this residue can break through the cell wall of the bacteria. In lower concentrations, it only breaks down a reproductive enzyme.

Recently, some manufacturers have taken the idea of this residue a step further and created an antimicrobial product protection technology. This technology leaves a permanent residue on objects to kill microorganisms. BioShield 75 and AEGIS Microbe Shield represent two popular products in this category.

Most of these antimicrobial products have undergone thorough laboratory testing. However, researchers have not scrutinized these products in well-designed clinical studies. This means their effectiveness in real-world settings remains untested.

What are natural antimicrobials?

Scientists have made a lot of progress developing new antimicrobial products. However, nature has provided its own antimicrobial agents.

For example, salt has some natural antibacterial properties. Salt can kill bacteria by essentially sucking the water out of it. In a process known as osmosis, water leaves the cells of bacteria to balance out salt concentrations outside their cell membranes. However, this process does not kill all bacteria.

Salt’s cousin, bleach, also has antimicrobial properties. Because it is so effective in killing germs, the CDC recommends using a bleach solution as a disinfectant to fight the coronavirus.

Many metals and metal alloys, such as silver and copper, also have natural antimicrobial properties. In fact, the EPA has approved the use of copper alloy as an antimicrobial product. Testing shows that copper alloy surfaces can kill certain strains of bacteria within two hours.

Why do health care facilities need antimicrobial-treated products?

Health care facilities need to remain as free from bacteria as possible to protect both patients and doctors. First and foremost, all health care professionals should wash their hands before and after interacting with a patient. When soap and water are unavailable, alcohol-based disinfectant works in a pinch.

In addition to encouraging good handwashing practices, facility managers can install antimicrobial-treated products in health care settings. Such products include zinc-based antimicrobial paint and copper-infused bed sheets. Using effective antimicrobial-treated products can help reduce the spread of health care–associated infections (HAIs).

It’s also important to note that manufacturers should take antimicrobial stewardship seriously as they develop new products for health care facilities. As we will discuss further later, antimicrobial drug resistance poses a real threat to global health.

Ingredients in antimicrobial products

You can find antimicrobial products featuring a wide variety of ingredients on the market today. Here at Spruce Industries, we believe that facility managers and custodians should have a fundamental understanding of how these ingredients work. Our mission is to help equip you with the knowledge you need to make the best choices for your facility.

What are antimicrobial chemicals?

Antimicrobial chemicals fight and kill different microorganisms. Triclosan represents the most infamous of these chemicals. A Swiss chemical company originally developed and patented triclosan in the 1960s. Since then, this chemical has made an appearance in everything from cutting boards to soap.

As an antimicrobial, triclosan leaves a residue on surfaces to kill or neutralize germs. However, when you use antibacterial soaps, you immediately wash off the triclosan residue. This essentially means the triclosan has little to no impact on disinfecting your hands.

Other antimicrobial chemicals include alcohols, chlorine compounds, and peroxides. Many disinfecting and cleaning products use these as their active ingredients.

What are the active ingredients in antimicrobial technology?

As we listed above, the active ingredients in antimicrobial substances range from common chemicals like alcohols and chlorines to lab-produced synthetics. You can find the active ingredients in a particular product by checking out the product label. For example, the label of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will likely declare a 60 to 90 percent concentration of ethanol as the active ingredient.

Additionally, you can look up antimicrobial products and manufacturers using the EPA’s Pesticide Product and Label System. After searching the EPA’s database, click on the “Chemical” tab of the product listing. This will tell you the active ingredients in each registered product.

What antimicrobial ingredients have been banned or removed from products?

In 2016, the FDA banned the use of nineteen antimicrobial ingredients—including triclosan and triclocarban—in consumer products. This ban did not apply to the use of these ingredients in health care settings. But it did cause triclosan soap to disappear from consumer shelves.

The FDA made this decision due to a lack of scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of these ingredients. One study, for example, compared the use of regular soap to soap with triclocarban and found no difference between the two. Concerns that triclosan might enter the human bloodstream and harm aquatic ecosystems also helped motivate the ban.

The FDA has also banned the use of twenty-eight ingredients in hand sanitizers. While the CDC currently promotes the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the FDA has requested further data on the use of ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and benzalkonium chloride in hand sanitizers.

Pros of antimicrobial products

When you use them properly, antimicrobial products can help create a safe and healthy environment. Below, we review instances when you should consider using these products in your facility.

Why are antimicrobial products needed in public buildings?

To best prevent the spread of disease in public buildings, you need to use more than just cleaning products. While cleaning goes a long way, you also need to regularly disinfect. Disinfection is especially important in high-touch areas.

For example, public doorknobs, light switches, refrigerator doors, and restroom faucets receive contact from dozens if not hundreds of people a day. Each interaction provides a chance for germs to travel from one host to the next with surprising speed.

Facility managers can take a few steps to counter this. First of all, you can use EPA-approved antimicrobial products and disinfectants. The EPA has taken the time to create multiple lists of antimicrobial products that can kill microorganisms—from the coronavirus to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Additionally, you can consider using other products with antimicrobial properties in your facility. You can install copper alloy doorknobs, for example, to help minimize the number of microorganisms that live on these high-touch objects.

However, it is important to maintain a healthy level of skepticism toward antimicrobial products, especially new ones. Some of these products rely on laboratory studies without enough real-world testing.

What are the benefits of antimicrobial protection?

Antimicrobial activity helps prevent the spread of viral microorganisms. While cleaning products wash away most surface-level germs, antimicrobial disinfectants kill remaining microbes.

They do so by destroying the microorganism’s cell wall or interfering with its metabolism. Both processes prevent microorganisms from reproducing and spreading disease.

In almost all instances, we recommend using antimicrobial products approved by the EPA. Although some research has emerged on products that use natural antimicrobials, we have yet to see adequate data to prove the effectiveness of all of these products.

What are the advantages of antimicrobial products over antibacterial products?

Antimicrobial products have the potential to kill various forms of microorganisms. These include bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Antibacterial products only kill bacteria.

However, not all antimicrobial products are equal. Some antimicrobial product ingredients, such as phenolics, kill viruses and bacteria but do nothing against spores. Others, such as alcohol, can kill most viruses but cannot kill certain strains of norovirus.

Be sure to review the kill claims of the antimicrobial products you are considering to purchase. Make sure these kill claims align with your needs.

Cons of antimicrobial products

There are seemingly countless antimicrobial products available on the market today. However, the scientific community still debates the value of some of these products and their ingredients. This has led regulatory organizations such as the FDA to ban the use of some antimicrobial products and ingredients, such as triclosan and triclocarban.

Below, we outline some of the pitfalls and risks of relying too heavily on antimicrobial products.

What are the biggest downsides of antimicrobial products?

Many health professionals and scientists have raised concerns over pathogenic microorganisms developing antibiotic resistance. This occurs when the proteins in bacteria mutate to resist antimicrobial activity. Mutated bacteria pose a major risk because our current antibiotics might not be able to fight them.

The bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, for example, lives on human skin and in nasal canals. In most instances, this bacterium poses no threat and stays benign. However, after exposure to antimicrobial products, this bacterium can quickly develop a resistance to standard antibiotics. In its evolved form, the microbe turns into methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and causes “staph” infections.

What can you do to prevent antimicrobial resistance?

Facility managers can take certain precautions to prevent antimicrobial resistance while maintaining clean facilities.

Above all else, we recommend that you encourage basic healthy practices among your employees and at your facilities. If employees stay healthy, they reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases to their peers. Encourage employees to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly. While it sounds overly simplistic, soap and water literally wash infectious microorganisms down the drain.

Set a standard for employees to stay home when sick. From a health standpoint, this drastically reduces the possibility of others getting sick. It also has an added financial benefit. When employees come to work sick and spread disease, the financial cost of lost productivity can be enormous. As the CDC reports, employees working when they are sick can cost employers between $150 billion and $250 billion per year.

Additionally, be sure to follow directions carefully when using antimicrobial cleaning products. Straying from product directions gives microorganisms a chance to regroup and develop antimicrobial resistance.

When disinfecting surfaces, first clean up any dirt where germs could live. Then make sure your disinfectant has sufficient dwell time to thoroughly kill all infectious microorganisms.

How might antimicrobial products harm you?

Without a doubt, we have seen growing concern over antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When you do not use antimicrobial products properly, they have the potential to directly harm you and the world around you.

For example, triclosan has the ability to permeate the skin and enter the bloodstream. Some studies noticed that triclosan can alter hormonal activities in animals. Additionally, antimicrobial products can cause harm after you initially use them. Some products, for example, can enter aquatic ecosystems and impact water quality and the development of algae and fish.

Additionally, many antimicrobial products have highly corrosive properties. Disinfectants such as chlorine compounds and phenolics can corrode solid surfaces. Needless to say, if these products can harm porcelain and granite, they can also damage your skin if you do not handle them properly.

If you have questions on product hazards, consult the product’s label and safety data sheet (SDS). These resources will provide you with information on how to use and store the product safely.

Antimicrobial products for a safer tomorrow

In today’s climate, you cannot cut any corners when protecting your employees’ and clients’ health and safety. However, with the number of antimicrobial products on the market, you have seemingly countless options to choose from to get the job done. This can make selecting products for your organization overwhelming.

At Spruce Industries, we want to help you stay safe and stay within budget. We are ready to partner with you and help you choose products that best meet your needs. Give us a call, and our experts will provide the clarity you need to keep your team safe.

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