In the 1800s, scientists began experimenting with a variety of chemicals for disinfection. In the 1860s, British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827–1912) began using carbolic acid, known as phenol, as a disinfectant for the treatment of surgical wounds. In 1879, Lister’s work inspired the American chemist Joseph Lawrence (1836–1909) to develop Listerine, an alcohol-based mixture of several related compounds that is still used today as an oral antiseptic. Today, carbolic acid is no longer used as a surgical disinfectant because it is a skin irritant, but the chemical compounds found in antiseptic mouthwashes and throat lozenges are called phenolics.
Chemically, phenol consists of a benzene ring with an –OH group, and phenolics are compounds that have this group as part of their chemical structure. Phenolics such as thymol and eucalyptol occur naturally in plants. Other phenolics can be derived from creosote, a component of coal tar. Phenolics tend to be stable, persistent on surfaces, and less toxic than phenol. They inhibit microbial growth by denaturing proteins and disrupting membranes.
Since Lister’s time, several phenolic compounds have been used to control microbial growth. Phenolics like cresols (methylated phenols) and o-phenylphenol were active ingredients in various formulations of Lysol since its invention in 1889. o-Phenylphenol was also commonly used in agriculture to control bacterial and fungal growth on harvested crops, especially citrus fruits, but its use in the United States is now far more limited. The bisphenol hexachlorophene, a disinfectant, is the active ingredient in pHisoHex, a topical cleansing detergent widely used for handwashing in hospital settings. pHisoHex is particularly effective against gram-positive bacteria, including those causing staphylococcal and streptococcal skin infections. pHisoHex was formerly used for bathing infants, but this practice has been discontinued because it has been shown that exposure to hexachlorophene can lead to neurological problems.
Triclosan is another bisphenol compound that has seen widespread application in antibacterial products over the last several decades. Initially used in toothpastes, triclosan is now commonly used in hand soaps and is frequently impregnated into a wide variety of other products, including cutting boards, knives, shower curtains, clothing, and concrete, to make them antimicrobial. It is particularly effective against gram-positive bacteria on the skin, as well as certain gram-negative bacteria and yeasts.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology