Types of Disinfectants and How to Choose

Disinfecting & Sanitizing, Educational

Types of Disinfectants: How to Make the Best Choice for Your Facility

Why Disinfect?

Almost every environment on the planet contains bacteria and microorganisms. You might be surprised to learn that on one square inch of human skin there are more than 600,000 bacteria1. Most bacteria are harmless to humans. But disease-causing organisms – called pathogens – can be dangerous or even deadly. One of the most contagious and dangerous diseases in recent history is COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Using the right types of disinfectants routinely on surfaces throughout your facility is critical in helping prevent the spread of sicknesses and diseases like COVID, Influenza (flu) and the common cold. Since there are many types of disinfectants on the market, it’s important to understand how they work – including their pros and cons— in order to make an informed decision on how to best disinfect and protect the occupants of your facility.

How do Disinfectants Work?

Disinfectants are chemical agents applied to non-living objects in order to destroy bacteria, viruses, fungi, mold or mildews living on the objects. By definition, disinfectant formulas must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The “active ingredient” in each disinfectant formula is what kills pathogens, usually by disrupting or damaging their cells. Active ingredients are usually aided by other ingredients with various purposes. For example, surfactants can be added to a disinfectant formula to provide consistent wetting on a surface or to help in cleaning.

Main Types of Disinfectants, Categorically Speaking

Several broad categories of disinfectants are used in commercial and industrial facility maintenance. Below are several of the most common types. While not an exhaustive list, these cover the large majority used today. If you’d like more detailed information on the pros and cons of these types of disinfectants, reference Nyco’s Liquid Disinfectants 101 chart.

Of special note: When a pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 is initially identified by experts, it is classified as an “emerging pathogen.” The EPA allows only certain disinfectants to be designated effective against emerging pathogens. Nyco has several disinfectants with this special claim. Read your disinfectant label to identify whether it has the emerging pathogen claim.

Hydrogen Peroxide When formulated as ready-to-use disinfectants, hydrogen peroxide-based products are viewed as being safe, green, and sustainable for the environment. This is because they break down into naturally-occurring elements of water and oxygen. H2O2 disinfectants tend to kill a broad spectrum of bacteria and viruses quickly, are mildly acidic, and are effective cleaners. Some RTU products such as Nyco HPX Hydrogen Peroxide Disinfectant Cleaner will kill the SARS-CoV-2 in as little as one minute. Users should use caution with concentrated hydrogen peroxide however, as it can be unstable and dangerous.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats) Quats are a top choice for disinfection in hospital and institutional settings because of their low cost and quick action against a wide range of microorganisms. Quats can be formulated with a variety of detergents to provide both cleaning and disinfecting ability. Nyco’s Sani-Spritz Spray RTU disinfectant is an example of a quat-based disinfectant with both cleaning power and broad spectrum kill claims for many common and dangerous bacteria and viruses (including emerging pathogens and SARS-CoV-2).
Chlorine Compounds Kills an array of organisms including resistant viruses, and is highly recommended for cleaning bodily fluids. Chlorine-based disinfectants are inexpensive and have relatively quick kill times, however they can be corrosive and cause discoloration as well as irritation if not used as directed. Chlorine Sanitizer II is an example of a chlorine disinfectant, ideal for use in healthcare settings and food preparation processing.
Alcohols When diluted in water, alcohols are effective against a wide range of bacteria, though higher concentrations are often needed to disinfect wet surfaces. The downsides are they evaporate quickly (and thus may not remain on the surface long enough to kill), they’re flammable, and they may not have organic soil tolerance claims, meaning they may not be effective when organic matter (blood, for example) is present.
Aldehydes Very effective against the bacteria that cause Tuberculosis, yet they need a high part per million (ppm) ratio to be effective for disinfection. Some bacteria have developed a resistance to aldehydes, and have been found to cause asthma and other health problems. They can also leave greasy residue and must be in an alkaline solution.
Iodophors Can be used for disinfecting some semi-critical medical equipment but they can stain surfaces and have an unpleasant odor (think Iodine). Idophors aren’t often used in facility maintenance anymore.
Phenolic Compounds Effective against pathogenic bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis as well as fungi and viruses, but also very toxic and corrosive, attacking surfaces while they attack the organisms on them. Some areas enforce disposal restrictions on Phenols.

What to Consider When Choosing Your Disinfectant

There are four primary considerations you should evaluate when choosing a disinfectant to best meet the needs of your facility. Answering these questions will give you a framework for helping determine the best product(s) to use in your organization.

1. Effectiveness

Does a disinfectant kill the microbes and pathogens that are of top concern in your facility? For example, you may be highly concerned about Staphylococcus aureus Methicillin Resistant (MRSA). Some disinfectants are EPA approved as effective against this bacteria. Nyco® Uno is one such disinfectant. Keep in mind that pathogens can have multiple strains, and disinfectants are certified for specific strains. Uno is also effective against Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA) Community Associated Methicillin Resistant. Depending on your industry and facility type – healthcare, education, long-term care, hospitality – you will have varying needs and requirements.

2. Kill Time

How quickly does a disinfectant product kill a specific pathogen? Does the product keep surfaces visibly wet in order to comply with these kill times? Again, disinfectant formulas are registered to kill specific pathogens in a specific amount of time, and they need to be wet on a surface the entire time to be actively working. Thirty seconds to five minutes might be a typical kill time. If a disinfectant needs 10 minutes though, be sure it will actually stay wet that long. Alcohol-based disinfectants may vey well evaporate before their required contact time. Read and follow all directions for use and rewetting if necessary.

3. Safety

Is the product safe to use for people and safe for the surfaces it is being applied to? As you learned earlier in this article, some categories of disinfectants are toxic, some stain, others are corrosive, yet others have an undesirable odor. Check toxicity and flammability ratings on products, as well as any personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations for disinfectants you apply. Be sure a disinfectant will not damage any surface it is intended for.

4. Ease of Use

Are the steps required to use a given disinfectant practical for your facility? Some applications require multiple steps that may not always be feasible. Water hardness is one factor that can impact the effectiveness of some disinfectant formulas. Sani-Spritz Spray cleans and disinfects in just one step, making it a top choice for an easy, ready-to-use use disinfectant that addresses a broad spectrum of bacteria, viruses, fungi and mildew in hospitals, institutions, and industry.

Sorting through information about the various types of disinfectants takes time, but it’s a critical step to ensure you are making the best maintenance decision for your facility. Having the right products on hand along with a solid plan to prevent disease and infection will save effort and expense down the road, and give added peace of mind to you, your staff and any visitors that come through your doors.

1Science Clarified. “We Are Surrounded.” Scienceclarified.com. http://www.scienceclarified.com/scitech/Bacteria-and-Viruses/We-Are-Surrounded.html (Accessed February 21, 2016.)


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