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What Are the Differences between Antibacterial and Antimicrobial?

Helen Akers
Updated Feb 11, 2024
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Antibacterial products tend to reduce the growth of milder forms of bacteria, while antimicrobial products prevent the growth of a wider range of bacteria, including molds. Even though antibacterial and antimicrobial products are both prevalent, antimicrobial properties are more likely to be seen in prescription strength medications. Chemicals used to reduce and kill surface bacteria are likely to be found in over-the-counter antibacterial hand wash and facial products. Unlike antimicrobial products, they do not prevent the growth or occurrence of bacteria.

The primary difference between antibacterial and an antimicrobial chemicals is their ability to prevent the development of bacteria. For example, antibacterial soaps usually kill mild to moderate strains of bacteria that can come in contact with the skin's surface. Antimicrobial agents, on the other hand, have been shown to prevent the spread of bacteria that can live and multiply inside the human body. Some of these types of bacteria can contribute to the development of diseases and disorders, such as inflammatory acne.

Both antibacterial and antimicrobial products can be used to resist bacteria, even though they tend to be designed to resist different bacterial strains. Antimicrobial chemicals are usually used in the development of prescription antibiotics, chemotherapy treatments and in anti-fungal solutions. In contrast, one of the main uses of antibacterial agents is to prevent the spread of germs that can develop into the common cold or cause surface skin infections. Chlorine bleach is an example of a product that contains antibacterial properties and it is often used to reduce the amount of surface bacteria that can exist in kitchens and bathrooms.

One of the important distinctions between antibacterial and antimicrobial products is that antimicrobial chemicals tend to prevent the spread of bacteria. For example, antimicrobial chemicals have been shown to prevent the growth of mold, which tends to multiply and spread rapidly. While antibacterial products can kill existing bacteria, they must constantly be reapplied or reused in order to get rid of any persisting strains. Antimicrobial agents tend to not only kill existing bacteria, but prevent the strains from multiplying and spreading to other areas.

The repeated use of antibacterial and antimicrobial products may cause a person to become resistant to his own ability to fight infections. This seems to be more of a concern with certain types of antibiotics that are used to treat mild to moderate infections. Resistance can also be an issue with mild antibacterial chemicals used in over-the-counter face and hand washes. Certain types of antimicrobial chemicals, such as penicillin, have been able to withstand bacteria's ability to develop resistant strains.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Helen Akers
By Helen Akers
Helen Akers, a talented writer with a passion for making a difference, brings a unique perspective to her work. With a background in creative writing, she crafts compelling stories and content to inspire and challenge readers, showcasing her commitment to qualitative impact and service to others.
Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Aug 12, 2013

@turkay1-- It's not a good idea to use antibacterials and antimicrobials too much. When used often, bacteria and fungi develop resistance to them and the chemicals become ineffective. That's why antimicrobial products are not available for public use and antibacterial soaps are fairly mild.

By ddljohn — On Aug 11, 2013

Actually, antibacterials are a type of antimicrobial medicines. Antibacterials are a sub-group.

If we say "antimicrobials," were are referring to medicines that kill bacteria, fungi, microbes, etc. This is the overarching category. Antibacterials are antimicrobial medications that only kill bacteria.

For example, penicillin is both antimicrobial and antibacterial.

By candyquilt — On Aug 10, 2013

So from what I understand, antimicrobial products are better and more effective. I think this is what they usually use in hospitals right?

I wish antimicrobial soap was made available in places like public bathrooms. I'm sure the number of bacterial infections would go down.

Helen Akers
Helen Akers
Helen Akers, a talented writer with a passion for making a difference, brings a unique perspective to her work. With a...
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