What is a Disinfectant & How Do They Work?

5 Min. Read

Cleaning of a laptop Cleaning of a laptop
Gary Bradburne Application expert
Infection Prevention Specialist Diversey UK & Ireland
Aug 23, 2023

Find what a disinfectant is and how disinfectants work in this guide to commercial cleaning practices: a complete guide to using disinfectants.

Disinfectants are an important line of defence against harmful microorganisms that can cause anything from MRSA to Influenza. Protecting your staff, your business and your customers from these harmful microorganisms is critical. It is important to know how disinfectants work, when they should be used and what products to buy. This guide answers those questions and more. So, to learn what a disinfectant is and how they stop the spread of harmful microorganisms, scroll down.


What Does a Disinfectant Do?

A disinfectant destroys microorganisms on non-living or inert surfaces. This means disinfecting surfaces is a form of decontamination.

How does a disinfectant work? Disinfectants work by disrupting the metabolism of microorganisms, mainly by breaking down their cell walls. This process renders a microorganism inactive or in a state whereby its potential for causing infection is severely diminished.

In answering what disinfectants do, we also need to say what they don’t do. A disinfectant doesn’t kill microorganisms or completely remove them from surfaces. This makes disinfection different from sterilisation (an extreme chemical process that kills all life).

Finally, we should also distinguish what disinfectants do compared to antiseptics and antibiotics. Although antiseptics and antibiotics also break down microorganisms to render them inactive, they’re primarily used on live tissue i.e. in humans or animals.

What Viruses Does Disinfectant Kill?

Disinfectants come in a variety of forms and can be used to protect against a plethora of potentially harmful bacteria and viruses. Some of the main harmful microorganisms - viruses, bacteria, bacteria spores and fungi - that disinfectants protect against are:

  • Influenza
  • Penicillium chrysogenum
  • Mould fungus
  • E.coli
  • Clostridium difficile (C.Diff)
  • Inactivate lipid-enveloped viruses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa


Where Should You Disinfect?

You should use a disinfectant on any environmental or inert surface that is exposed to potentially harmful microorganisms. The surface you’re cleaning will determine the type of disinfectant you use. Common types of disinfectants include:

  • Alcohol 
  • Oxidising agents (Chlorine, Hydrogen Peroxide, Peracetic acid).
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds.
  • Citric or Lactic acid.
  • Non-chemical disinfectants include. ultraviolet light in the C spectrum (UVC) and thermal (heat)

In the home and workplace, you can use disinfectants on these surfaces:

  • Hard surfaces e.g. light switches, counters, windows, floors and doors
  • Soft surfaces e.g. rugs, carpets and curtains
  • Laundry e.g. clothes, bed linen and cloths
  • Electronic devices e.g. phones, computer keyboards and screens, remote controls


What is the Science Behind Disinfectants?

In answering the question, what are disinfectants, we explained that they work by disrupting the metabolism of microorganisms. This process typically involves breaking down cell walls. This leads us to the question: how does a disinfectant work on a cellular level?

Bacterial cells are protected by a protein-based membrane called phospholipids. In fact, the cells actually have two layers of protection. The heads of the cell membrane are hydrophilic, which means they attract water molecules. These molecules keep the organism alive.

A disinfectant works by penetrating the cell membrane and breaking down its molecular bonds. This essentially removes the cell's outer layers of protection and causes what’s inside to leak out.

Once the bacteria is exposed to the atmosphere (i.e. not protected by the cell membrane), it’s no longer harmful and can not cause infection. That’s the basic overview of how disinfectants work.

How Long Does Disinfectant Take to Work?

Disinfectants don’t typically work instantly. They need to be left for a while so that the chemical compound (or heat/light) has time to break down the molecular bonds within the membranes of bacterial cells. Depending on the micro-organism, conditions, surface type, and chemical agent, it can take between 60 seconds and 60 minutes to disinfect, however, on average, most modern disinfectants take approximately 5 minutes.

Common Misconceptions About Disinfectants

Some misconceptions about disinfectants are…

  • “Disinfectants completely remove all bacteria.”
    • As explained, depending on the type, disinfectants kill bacteria and viruses to such safe levels (log 5 and log 4) that they do not cause infection.
  • "All disinfectants are chemical solutions.”
    • Boiling water is actually a form of disinfection that doesn’t involve any chemical solutions.
  • “All disinfectants are the same.”
    • As noted by Professor Tamar Kohn, head of EPFL’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, different disinfectants attack different parts of microorganisms/viruses.
  • “All cleaning products are disinfectants.”
    • This is incorrect. Cleaning products are generally designed to remove soiling from a surface and will not disinfect, unless combined with a disinfectant agent. 
      So Just as you need a cloth to remove large debris from a surface, or something to remove grease, you need specific products to disinfect surfaces.

Recommended Disinfectant Products

You should now know what a disinfectant does and how disinfectants work. To put this knowledge into action and protect your business, you need the right products. Diversey offers a range of high-quality, commercial-grade disinfectants for all surfaces and settings, such as Oxivir® Excel. From hospitals and care homes to offices and public buildings, our disinfectants will protect your business and its customers.

Some of the Oxivir® Disinfectant Cleaners you should try are:

  • Oxivir Excel Wipes (pre-soaked, easy to use, versatile to clean and disinfect hard surface areas in many locations).
  • Oxivir Excel Foam - Ready To Use (No chemical mixing and minimize the chance of chemical spills or splashes).
  • Oxivir Excel Concentrate (dilution control, economical and sustainable solution).

Along with the information in this guide, as well as our range of products, you can click here to learn the six steps to effectively disinfect surfaces.