The concept of cleaning and disinfection has a lot of interesting stories and fascinating facts which date thousands of years back, where Egyptians used wine or vinegar to clean.

Many centuries have passed in which various types of chemicals were used to clean the surfaces, for example in The Odyssey, Homer wrote that the protagonist, after defeating his rival, demanded that sulfur should be burned in the house to detoxify and purify the space. In various cultures it has been written that Mercury was used for cleaning and as protectant for surfaces. But these methods were sometimes toxic and archaic to achieve; and the knowledge about bacteria and other microorganisms was limited that time. It was believed that if you see the chemical working i.e. through smoke or the coating on the surface, then it is killing the causative agent of the disease.

In 1675 ‘microorganism’ was discovered by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek. In 1676, discovered that with the help of vinegar some of these microorganisms can be killed. The scientists started realizing that these unseen organisms can cause disease, and in order to get rid of them, chemicals have to be used as they have potential to kill these organisms without any visible reaction to the eye. This was a huge discovery which opened the door for a large body of research in the use of chemicals to kill microorganisms on various types of surfaces.

Here are some of the examples of the disinfectants that were used in ancient times:


Initially bleach was used as an agent to whiten clothes and other linens by Egyptians in around 5000 BC. But in 1847, a derivative of bleach was introduced as the hand disinfectant at Vienna Medical center which helped to reduce the risk of post-partum women who developed child bed fever. After the introduction of bleach as a disinfectant agent the mortality rate reduced drastically.

Bleach one of the most versatile disinfectant as it works in a similar fashion to alcohol. It irreversibly denatures the proteins of the bacteria or depending upon the pH of the bleach it penetrates the lipid membrane of bacteria which causes the bacteria to die. Bleach is used a lot in the healthcare sector as it kills almost all the pathogens including spores. It is recommended that bleach water should be used in the dilution of 1:10 for disinfecting surfaces for the germs that can be transmitted easily or to kill the pathogens like corona-virus. The ratio mentioned above is recommended by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control.


Also known as phenolics, have been used as hospital antiseptic and disinfectant. It was initially used by Joseph Lister in his ground-breaking work on surgical antisepsis in 1880s. He used carbolic acid in his research to sterilize surgical instruments and to clean wounds. This became the first antiseptic which was used widely to clean the surgical settings. But later, it was discovered that phenol can be carcinogenic and there are various other agents which can be used instead. Hence the use of phenol reduced a lot in the 1970s, and nowadays it is rarely used in clinical settings.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QAC)

The Rockefeller institute in early 20th century discovered a new agent which was known as quaternary ammonium salt. in 1916 they realized that it has properties to kill bacteria. But these compounds were not used as a disinfectant until 1935. The first quaternary ammonium compound that was used in the market was benzalkonium chloride (BZK). It was initially introduced as an alternative to carbolic acid for skin antisepsis and scrubbing in the surgical setting. Later on, this compound was researched further and was found to be an good surface disinfectant too.

But later on, it was realized that QAC are quite low-level disinfectant unless and until they are combined with other chemicals. Scientist later found out that its combination with alcohol gave a synergistic effect that would kill faster and broader types of micro-organisms. Many hospitals prefer to use this combination as it is a safe and efficient disinfectant.

Currently various types of disinfectants are being used safely in healthcare setting but there is always a give and take when it comes to surface disinfectant. it is necessary that the healthcare settings use it with great caution as it can have some harmful effects too like degrading the quality of the surface. It is advisable that one must use EPA registered surface disinfectant and the right combination for one’s facility.