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Antimicrobial Agent

What Does Antimicrobial Agent Mean?

An antimicrobial agent is a substance that will kill, prevent, or suppress the growth of harmful microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoans. It is a general term that covers antibacterial and anti-parasitic drugs, antiviral agents, antimicrobial pesticides, antifungal agents, and other similar substances.

Antimicrobial agents are used on a daily basis for various purposes including medical treatments and sanitization. Antimicrobial products such as drugs and antiseptics are regulated by the United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and antimicrobial products such as pesticides are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Safeopedia Explains Antimicrobial Agent

Antimicrobial agents are used to ensure food and drug safety, prevent hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), treat drinking and wastewater, and to clean industrial, residential, and commercial premises.

Regulatory Framework for Antimicrobial Agents

Products containing antimicrobial agents are regulated through two federal laws in the U.S.:

  • The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)
  • The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA)

These acts intend to ensure the safe use of antimicrobial agents in various applications including food production and processing, pharmaceutical and cosmetics, surface treatment, and agricultural uses.

The U.S. FDA and U.S. EPA regulatory bodies are charged with regulating antimicrobial agents based on their intended application. Products used on non-living objects such as countertops, toys, and equipment are regulated by the EPA under FIFRA as antimicrobial pesticides. Products used on living things such as humans and animals are regulated by FDA under FFDCA. A product that shows EPA on the label indicates it is a pesticide and not meant for use on living things.

Types of Antimicrobial Pesticides

There are two categories of antimicrobial pesticides: those used in public health settings and those used in non-public health settings. Public health settings are those where microbes may cause people to get sick including bathrooms, kitchens, homes, hospitals, and restaurants. Non-public health settings are those where microbes may cause objects to spoil or rot including wood, textiles, paint, paper products, and fuel.

There are three types of public health antimicrobial agents.


Sanitizers are the weakest public-health antimicrobials that reduce bacteria on surfaces. Some can be used on food-contact surfaces such as countertops while some can be used only for non-food contact surfaces like toilet bowls.


Disinfectants prevent or kill the growth of bacteria and fungi. They are commonly used in medical settings, but are also used for residences. However, they should never be used for food contact surfaces.


Sterilziers are the strongest of these three types of pesticides. They can control hard-to-kill spores in addition to bacteria, algae, and fungi. Sterilizers are restricted-use pesticides. Their use requires applicator training and certification. They are commonly used in medical and research settings that require a sterilized environment.

Antimicrobial Agents at the Workplace

Employers are required by OSHA to maintain a safe workplace for their employees. This includes controling hazards related to the storage and use of antimicrobial agents. The common risks of using these substances include chemical splashes, irritation of the eye or skin, and inhalation of fumes. Repeated overexposure can lead to chronic health problems. Pesticide labels carry the force of law and companies may not deviate from their instructions.

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