Using Detergents as a Method of Microbial Control

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

People are becoming more aware that it's important to keep the growth of viruses and bacteria in our environments under control. In this lesson, we will discuss ways in which various types of microbes can be controlled by the use of detergents.

What Is a Detergent?

The word 'detergent' is used to mean many different things and is often used interchangeably with the word 'soap'. However, technically, a detergent is actually a surfactant that reduces the surface tension of water to make it more effective at removing dirt. Molecules of detergents have both hydrophobic and hydrophilic (water-hating and water-loving) areas which can interact with the cells of dirt and grime as well as some microbes, destroying their cell walls. Commercial detergents vary a great deal in their compositions, and while some of them simply impart a lovely fragrance to the washing machine, others contain chemicals that actually can kill or control microbe populations.

Setting the Right Goal for Microbe Control

Before detergents or any chemicals are used as a method of microbial control, it's important to decide just how much control is needed over the microbes. Do we want to kill them all or simply keep their population under control? There are three methods that can be used to control the populations of microbes, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, and these methods are sterilization, disinfection, and sanitization.

  • Sterilization - Sterilization is the most thorough form of microbe control. It kills all microbes on an object or surface, including all bacteria and viruses. It is usually done using a physical method like heat, or a toxic gas like ethylene oxide.
  • Disinfection - Disinfection is a method by which the population of microbes on a given surface is reduced to the point that it does not pose a threat to human health, even if the microbes are pathogenic. Disinfection does not kill all microbes as sterilization does.
  • Sanitization - Sanitization is a form of microbe control that means that the population of microbes is reduced to a level that cannot be harmful to humans. To meet this standard, 99.9% of the microbes must be removed from a given surface or area.

Detergent vs. Disinfecting Chemicals

Detergents are not used for the purpose of sterilization, but may be used to control microbe populations through disinfection or, sometimes, through sanitization. It's always wise to choose disinfectants or detergents with disinfectants in them that are not only effective in removing pathogenic microbes, but that are also safe and not toxic to the user. Some disinfectants that are used in professional settings are not biodegradable and may cause health issues if used in a home setting.

Types of Detergents and Chemicals Used to Control Microbes

When trying to control microbe populations out in the world, it's important to understand that viruses like COVID 19 present a unique challenge because they are not actually alive. They can exist in their dormant stage on various surfaces for fairly long periods of time, sometimes even weeks. Then, when they hop upon a host, they begin to replicate and do their damage. That's why it's important for people to use detergents and chemicals that actually destroy or inactivate the virus. It's also important to use them often, so that the virus has less opportunity to strike. Some of the agents that can be used are surfactants, halogens, phenolics, alkylating agents, and alcohols.


Surfactants are the main ingredients in detergents. Most detergents are not really designed to kill pathogenic microbes, because reducing surface tension of water alone does not do this. However, other chemicals may be added to surfactant detergents that can kill various microbes.

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