Medical Specialties: Pathology, Surgery

Clinical Definition

A disinfectant is an agent used to destroy or inhibit the growth of pathogenic microorganisms. Most commonly, disinfectants are chemical substances used to prevent the spread of disease causing organisms.


The disinfectant is typically applied to an inanimate object, such as a surgical tool. It differs from an antiseptic, which is applied to a living thing. Heat and radiation can also act as disinfectants.

In Our Own Words

A disinfectant is a substance, usually a chemical, which can kill or prevent the growth of bacteria. Disinfection eliminates almost all pathogenic microbes, but sterilization is needed for a complete job. While antiseptics may be applied to living tissue, disinfectants are used on inanimate objects. These are used to prevent the spread of disease and illness.


There are different types of disinfectants that may be better for use, depending on the type of organism likely present. Other considerations when selecting a disinfectant are the surface that is being disinfected and how easy the chemical is to use. 

Common Types
  • Isopropyl solutions
  • Chlorine compounds
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  • VanMeter K., PhD, Hubert R., BS. Microbiology for the Healthcare Professional. Mosby 2009. Accessed February 2014.
  • Columbia University. “Decontamination and Disinfection.” http://ehs.columbia.edu/decon.html. Accessed February 2014.
  • Stanford University. “Disinfection.” http://www.stanford.edu/dept/EHS/prod/researchlab/bio/Disinfection.pdf. Accessed February 2014.
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