Today, antiseptics are a commonplace product. It is not uncommon to see antiseptics in places of business or in households. They are a key element in all first aid kits and anywhere where even cursory medical care is provided. Their ubiquity can sometimes make it hard to imagine life without them, which is a testament to how life-changing their invention was.

What Are Antiseptics?

Antiseptics are defined as a class of antimicrobial substances that can be applied to skin and other living tissue in order to kill bacteria and reduce the risk of infection and illness. The substances were discovered sometime in the 19th century.

It was Louis Pasteur who identified that germs existed and carried diseases, but antiseptics themselves were not widely used. They were ultimately popularized by surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister who began to apply them to his surgical instruments prior to performing surgery, and as a result patients began surviving longer and recovering from their surgeries more quickly.

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Antiseptics are distinguished from antibiotics, which are a class of medicine that kill harmful bacteria and infections inside the body. Likewise, disinfectants refer to bacteria and microorganism-killing liquids that are applied to inanimate surfaces. Antiseptics are responsible for reducing the risk of infection in patients who are already in a vulnerable state due to weakened immune systems.

List of Common Antiseptics

Antiseptic examples include alchohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine and chlorohexedine gluconate. It was an obstetrician working in Austria, named Ignaz Semmelweis, in the maternity department of Vienna General Hospital who began to notice patterns in the rate of infection of women after giving birth.

In 1847, he realized that when midwives handled a delivery, the survival rate was higher than when a doctor handled the delivery. He hypothesized that this was because male doctors typically handled cadavers.

Semmelweis believed it was the cadavers that were transmitting bacteria through hand to hand contact and instruments following autopsies and began washing his hands and instruments with soap and chlorine, two types of antiseptics. Post-delivery rates of puerperal fever began to drop. Although the idea of germs or bacteria being the cause of the spread of disease was still somewhat in the future, he had laid the groundwork.

Why Were Antiseptics Needed?

Antiseptics were necessary because of the needs of the medical and surgical professions. Everything from dirty hands to tainted instruments carry bacteria, and early operating theaters were filthy, which contributed to the very common death of patients even after successful surgeries.

Antiseptics are especially useful when dealing with open wounds, flesh wounds or any instance where a foreign object is touching damaged or broken tissue. The application of an antiseptic to an area that has been exposed to disease-generating bacteria can be the difference between a smooth healing process and a serious infection.

What Did Joseph Lister discover?

In the middle of the 19th century, operating theaters were bloody, filthy places where the patient grappled with life and death audibly and violently in the days before anesthesia. More than half of patients died following surgery even if the surgery was successful because the incidence of post-operative sepsis infection was so high.

Surgeon Joseph Lister had become convinced that cleanliness in tools and in terms of the surgeons instruments, operating area and hands were critical to preventing the spread of infection. Pasteur's theory about pus forming as a result of bacteria helped to further convince him that these unseen germs were responsible for getting patients sick.

Lister began to insist on all medical personnel being required to wash their hands between patients every single time. He also began to clean his tools with carbolic acid, in which he also dunked bandages. These bandages, when applied to patient's skin decreased their risk of infection, which was a common cause of death. Though he had nothing to do with the development of the product, "Listerine" is based on his name.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.