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What Are Phenol Disinfectants? - Definition, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:05 Gears and Disinfectants
  • 1:00 Phenol's Mechanism of Action
  • 3:29 Advantages and…
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
We will explore a disinfectant known as phenol. We'll cover what its mechanism of action is, what it can and cannot kill, its advantages and disadvantages and its involvement in enzyme systems.

Gears and Disinfectants

Back in the day, during the great Industrial Revolution, machinery was all the rage. Big, giant steam engines, production machinery and so forth were the tablets, cell phones and laptops of the day. They ran businesses, gave people jobs and made tycoons out of industrial pioneers.

However, the things that ran each and every single process always boiled down to a combination of little gears that turned every which way to make things go smoothly. Each gear was responsible in one way, shape or form of running a giant machine, which produced some kind of output, be it steam-driven energy or a product such as a newspaper. We'll see how these gears relate to a type of well-known disinfectant we're going to talk about in this lesson in just a little bit.

Phenol's Mechanism of Action

The little gears I mentioned are equivalent to a cell's enzymes, which are protein molecules that are responsible for producing and accelerating chemical changes in a cell or body. If an enzyme were to be stopped for any reason, then an important chemical reaction wouldn't take place. If an important reaction cannot take place, then an important process stops. If that important process stops, then the cell dies.

Imagine if one of the gears in a giant industrial steam engine broke apart. Even if it was a tiny little gear - a tiny little enzyme - that broken gear will stop the entire machine from functioning properly if it cannot work. If the steam engine cannot function, it cannot make energy. If it cannot produce energy, then whatever depends on it, like a steam-powered train, comes to a stop. That's how important these little gears, or enzymes, are.

A type of antimicrobial agent used as a disinfectant, called a phenol, uses a similar process to kill off bacteria on inanimate objects through the inactivation of their enzyme systems. This is by no means the only way by which a phenol works. It can also disrupt the cell wall of a microbe, causing the lysis, or bursting open of that cell, as well. And in general, phenols poison something known as the protoplasm, which is basically the entire microbial cell, minus the cell membrane. Basically, it's the entire orange, minus the orange peel.

The way by which I remember how phenols do their job is as follows. 'Phenol' sounds to me like 'Fee Knoll.' Using our steam train example from before, imagine that you are going to pay a fee to take a train over a knoll, which is a kind of hill.

As the steam train is going up and up to get over the hill, one of the gears, our enzymes, pops off from the train's wheels and the train starts to fall backwards, crashes and causes everyone on board to die. Well, our phenols cause the cells whose enzymes they pop off to crash, burn and die as well. It's an ugly example. It's crazy, but it may just help you remember how phenols work.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Phenols

In any case, as with every great industrial-era machine, phenols have their advantages and disadvantages. Nothing is perfect. For example, phenols can get a wide variety of microbes, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. However, if the right type of phenolic compound and the right concentration isn't used, it may not be able to kill off all living organisms, such as certain viruses.

In addition, phenols are not considered to be sporicidal, meaning they do not kill off the hardiest forms of bacteria - the bacterial endospores. Since the phenols cannot kill every type of microbe, they are considered to be disinfectants as opposed to sterilants, the latter of which would imply the death of all microbes on inanimate objects or surfaces as opposed to most microbes in the case of a disinfectant.

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