ANTISEPTICS , the name given to substances which are used for the prevention of bacterial development in animal or vegetable matter. Some are true germicides, capable of destroying the bacteria, whilst others merely prevent or inhibit their growth. The antiseptic method of treating wounds (see Surgery) was introduced by Lord Lister, and was an outcome of Pasteur's germ theory of putrefaction. For the growth of bacteria there must be a certain food supply, moisture, in most cases oxygen, and a certain minimum temperature (see Bacteriology). These conditions have been specially studied and applied in connexion with the preserving of food (see Food Preservation) and in the ancient practice of embalming the dead, which is the earliest illustration of the systematic use of antiseptics (see Embalming). In early inquiries a great point was made of the prevention of putrefaction, and work was done in the way of finding how much of an agent must be added to a given solution, in order that the bacteria accidentally present might not develop. But for various reasons this was an inexact method, and to-day an antiseptic is judged by its effects on pure cultures of definite pathogenic microbes, and on their vegetative and spore forms. Their standardization has been effected in many instances, and a water solution of carbolic acid of a certain fixed strength is now taken as the standard with which other antiseptics are compared. The more important of those in use to-day are carbolic acid, the perchloride and biniodide of mercury, iodoform, formalin, salicylic acid, etc. Carbolic acid is germicidal in strong solution, inhibitory in weaker ones. The so-called "pure" acid is applied to infected living tissues, especially to tuberculous sinuses or wounds, after scraping them, in order to destroy any part of the tuberculous material still remaining. A solution of 1 in 20 is used to sterilize instruments before an operation, and towels or lint to be used for the patient. Care must always be taken to avoid absorption (see Carbolic Acid). The perchloride of mercury is another very powerful antiseptic used in solutions of strength 1 in 2000, 1 in 1000 and 1 in 500. This or the biniodide of mercury is the last antiseptic applied to the surgeon's and assistants' hands before an operation begins. They are not, however, to be used in the disinfection of instruments, nor where any large abraded surface would favour absorption. Boracic acid receives no mention here; though it is popularly known as an antiseptic, it is in reality only a soothing fluid, and bacteria will flourish comfortably in contact with it. Of the dry antiseptics iodoform is constantly used in septic or tuberculous wounds, and it appears to have an inhibitory action on Bacillus tuberculosis. Its power depends on the fact that it is slowly decomposed by the tissues, and free iodine given off. Among the more recently introduced antiseptics, chinosol, a yellow substance freely soluble in water, and lysol, another coal-tar derivative, are much used. But every antiseptic, however good, is more or less toxic and irritating to a wounded surface. Hence it is that the "antiseptic" method has been replaced in the surgery of to-day by the "aseptic" method (see Surgery), which relies on keeping free from the invasion of bacteria rather than destroying them when present.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)