What’s the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial cleaning supplies?

What’s the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial cleaning supplies?

If your approach to cleaning has become considerably more aggressive since the novel coronavirus started making headlines, you’re not alone. From businesses to apartment buildings, schools to single family homes, keeping surfaces — and hands — free of germs has become more important than ever.

Unfortunately, all the elbow grease in the world won’t do the job if you use the wrong cleaner. We’re here to help by explaining what different types of cleaning supplies actually do.

What’s the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial cleaning supplies?

The language of cleaning

When it comes to cleaning products, a lot of terms get thrown around. Although you may see some overlap, it’s important to know exactly what these terms mean so you can ensure the product you choose fits your needs. 

First and foremost, remember that cleaning products should only be used for their intended — and listed — purposes. It’s also important to recognize that cleaning products designed for surfaces are not approved for use on humans. Before slathering a sanitizer all over your hands, make sure to check the label. Although hand sanitizer effectively kills germs and bacteria on skin, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes other sanitizers and disinfectants designed to kill viruses and bacteria on surfaces as antimicrobial pesticides, which are not safe to use on skin. And, as we’ll discuss shortly, even products designed for use on skin may not be safe for daily use over a long period of time.

Whether you’re cleaning your home or trying to keep your hands germ-free, here are a few terms you will likely see.

  • Antibacterial: Products described as antibacterial include ingredients (often triclosan and triclocarban) proven to reduce or prevent bacterial infection, according to the Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA).
  • Antimicrobial: Antimicrobial products offer a broader scope of protection. Products designated as antimicrobial are designed to kill or slow the spread of microorganisms, which include bacteria, viruses, protozoans, and fungi such as mold and mildew, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. It’s worth noting that it’s not unusual for the terms antibacterial, antimicrobial, and even antiseptic to be used somewhat interchangeably when it comes to soaps and cleaning products. However, if a product features an EPA label it means the EPA has ruled it as a pesticide that is not meant to be used on the body. On the flip side, antimicrobial products that are considered antiseptics can be used on people, pets, and other living things. So if you see a hand soap labeled as antimicrobial, it’s also antibacterial, whether the word antibacterial makes it onto the label or not.
  • Disinfectant: A cleaning product that makes a disinfecting claim has been subject to highly rigorous EPA testing requirements. The EPA maintains a list of disinfecting products that can be used to kill the coronavirus.
  • Sanitizer: The EPA does not hold sanitizing cleaning products to as high a standard of testing as those stating they disinfect. Additionally, they do not list any products as sanitizer only that are also approved to kill viruses like COVID-19. That being said, a number of items have been tested using EPA standards for both sanitizers and disinfectants, so you may find products that list both on their label. The EPA approves these products to kill viruses.
  • Sterilizer: When it comes to heavy duty antimicrobial products designed for use in public health locations, sterilizers are the strongest — in addition to killing bacteria, algae, and fungi, they can also take care of spores. The EPA often deems them as restricted-use pesticides, meaning they require applicator training and certification. Unless you work in a medical or research setting, you may not encounter these products yourself.

Products with antimicrobial and antibacterial agents

A quick trip down the cleaning aisle will reveal a vast array of products boasting antimicrobial and/or antibacterial agents. The right product for you will depend on your needs, so let’s take a look at some of the more common offerings.

Regardless of the product, you need to use the right technique. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you should first clean surfaces using soap and water to reduce the number of germs, dirt, and impurities, then use a disinfectant to kill any remaining germs. Consider which high-touch surfaces require frequent — perhaps daily — cleaning. Using gloves and ensuring good ventilation while you clean will help keep you safe; consider eye protection if a product may splash. And always, always use the amount and dilution (if applicable) detailed in the instructions.

  • Disinfecting wipes: Alcohol-based wipes are an easy-to-use option for commonly touched hard surfaces ranging from doorknobs and light switches to electronics and tray tables. Disinfecting wipes work well for large surfaces that would be difficult to rinse, since they’re designed to be used without needing a follow up rinse.
  • Multi-surface cleaners: Spray cleaners designed to be used on various hard surfaces may or may not require rinsing — read the label carefully before use.
  • Hand sanitizer: The FDA recognized the increased demand for hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 pandemic and published three sets of guidelines to help meet it. The FDA has also warned consumers of unapproved hand sanitizer products on the market that claim they contain ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol, an ingredient approved to kill coronavirus), but actually contain methanol (wood alcohol), which can be toxic if you absorb it through the skin and potentially lethal if ingested. Check this list of hand sanitizers with potential methanol contamination and stay in the loop with the FDA’s updates on hand sanitizers to avoid when restocking your supply.
  • Liquid hand soap: According to the FDA, using plain soap and water can safely and effectively prevent illnesses — no need to seek out options labeled antibacterial. In fact, the FDA plans to issue a final rule preventing over-the-counter consumer products (including hand soaps and body washes) with antibacterial agents such as triclosan and triclocarban from being marketed. The rationale: The benefits of using antibacterial soaps (versus plain soap) not only haven’t been proven, but there’s also a question as to whether those products can safely be used regularly over a long period of time. 
  • Glass cleaner: Windows and mirrors are prone to smudges and streaks, so to keep them squeaky clean and make sure to use a spray designed for glass. Opt for a lint-free towel to wipe it up.
  • Phone cleaning wipes: Pre-moistened wipes are a simple way to keep everything from personal cell phones to commonly used office accessories clean and disinfected.
  • Floor cleaner: Whether you have tile, wood, carpet, or laminate, certain products and equipment can help you keep it all clean.
  • Bathroom and toilet cleaner: As high-moisture areas that tend to get a lot of use, bathrooms need plenty of attention. It’s important to use products designed for the specific challenges bathroom surfaces present.

Antimicrobial qualities extend beyond cleaning supplies. To kill or slow the spread of microorganisms in the office, plenty of other items possess antimicrobial properties, too. These include:

  • Antimicrobial pens
  • Antimicrobial staplers
  • Antimicrobial lanyards
  • Antimicrobial binders
  • Antimicrobial sheet protectors
  • Antimicrobial scissors

Basically, if you know a product will be handled frequently and you’re interested in an antimicrobial version, it’s worth doing a bit of digging since the market for antimicrobial products is wide-ranging.

What’s the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial cleaning supplies?

Potential health risks of using antimicrobial cleaning products

Considering the fact that you’re probably looking for effective cleaning products in order to keep yourself, your colleagues, and/or your family safe, it may seem counterintuitive to learn that these very products pose potential health risks. But as long as you follow the directions on the label and adhere to the CDC’s recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting your home or your facility, you can clean to your heart’s content without sacrificing your safety — or anyone else’s. 

What’s the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial cleaning supplies?


By using products for their intended purposes and adhering to the guidelines set out by the CDC for keeping homes and facilities clean, you can safely and effectively reduce the risk of COVID-19 and other viruses.

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What’s the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial cleaning supplies?