The Antimicrobial Activity of Halogens


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(a) Betadine is a solution of the iodophor povidone-iodine. (b) It is commonly used as a topical
antiseptic on a patient’s skin before incision during surgery. (credit b: modification of work by Andrew Ratto)

OpenStax Microbiology

Halogens iodine, chlorine, and fluorine are the chemicals commonly used for disinfection. Iodine works by oxidizing cellular components, including sulfur-containing amino acids, nucleotides, and fatty acids, and destabilizing the macromolecules that contain these molecules. It is often used as a topical tincture, but it may cause staining or skin irritation. An iodophor is a compound of iodine complexed with an organic molecule, thereby increasing iodine’s stability and, in turn, its efficacy. One common iodophor is povidone-iodine, which includes a wetting agent that releases iodine relatively slowly. Betadine is a brand of povidone-iodine commonly used as a hand scrub by medical personnel before surgery and for topical antisepsis of a patient’s skin before incision.

Chlorine is another halogen commonly used for disinfection. When chlorine gas is mixed with water, it produces a strong oxidant called hypochlorous acid, which is uncharged and enters cells easily. Chlorine gas is commonly used in municipal drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, with the resulting hypochlorous acid producing the actual antimicrobial effect. Those working at water treatment facilities need to take great care to minimize personal exposure to chlorine gas. Sodium hypochlorite is the chemical component of common household bleach, and it is also used for a wide variety of disinfecting purposes. Hypochlorite salts, including sodium and calcium hypochlorites, are used to disinfect swimming pools. Chlorine gas, sodium hypochlorite, and calcium hypochlorite are also commonly used disinfectants in the food processing and restaurant industries to reduce the spread of foodborne diseases. Workers in these industries also need to take care to use these products correctly to ensure their own safety as well as the safety of consumers. A recent joint statement published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and WHO indicated that none of the many beneficial uses of chlorine products in food processing to reduce the spread of foodborne illness posed risks to consumers.

Another class of chlorinated compounds called chloramines are widely used as disinfectants. Chloramines are relatively stable, releasing chlorine over long periods time. Chloramines are derivatives of ammonia by substitution of one, two, or all three hydrogen atoms with chlorine atoms.

Chloramines and other cholorine compounds may be used for disinfection of drinking water, and chloramine tablets are frequently used by the military for this purpose. After a natural disaster or other event that compromises the public water supply, the CDC recommends disinfecting tap water by adding small amounts of regular household bleach. Recent research suggests that sodium dichloroisocyanurate (NaDCC) may also be a good alternative for drinking water disinfection. Currently, NaDCC tablets are available for general use and for use by the military, campers, or those with emergency needs; for these uses, NaDCC is preferable to chloramine tablets. Chlorine dioxide, a gaseous agent used for fumigation and sterilization of enclosed areas, is also commonly used for the disinfection of water.

Although chlorinated compounds are relatively effective disinfectants, they have their disadvantages. Some may irritate the skin, nose, or eyes of some individuals, and they may not completely eliminate certain hardy organisms from contaminated drinking water. The protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium, for example, has a protective outer shell that makes it resistant to chlorinated disinfectants. Thus, boiling of drinking water in emergency situations is recommended when possible.

The halogen fluorine is also known to have antimicrobial properties that contribute to the prevention of dental caries (cavities). Fluoride is the main active ingredient of toothpaste and is also commonly added to tap water to help communities maintain oral health. Chemically, fluoride can become incorporated into the hydroxyapatite of tooth enamel, making it more resistant to corrosive acids produced by the fermentation of oral microbes. Fluoride also enhances the uptake of calcium and phosphate ions in tooth enamel, promoting remineralization. In addition to strengthening enamel, fluoride also seems to be bacteriostatic. It accumulates in plaque-forming bacteria, interfering with their metabolism and reducing their production of the acids that contribute to tooth decay.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: