If you were to Google the word ‘Antimicrobial’, your search results would most likely include definitions like the following:
Adjective – Active against microbes
Noun – An antimicrobial substance
These definitions are a start but we are not sure they really improve our understanding of what an antimicrobial really is, does or how well it does it? In part this is because the word Antimicrobial is ‘autological’, meaning it is a word that describes a property it possesses, like the word short, which is short; noun which is a noun or word which is indeed a word. Whilst some would rather we didn’t – our competitors still seem to think ‘smoke and mirrors’ is an acceptable sales technique – we will attempt to demystify the term further. We hope it makes interesting and enlightening reading.
What is an antimicrobial product?
By the definition an antimicrobial product is a substance or material that is active against microbes. However, this is overly simplistic. Particularly when we consider the differences between the additives that BioCote® supply and the products that our customers manufacture including them and take to market.
For the purposes of this article, BioCote® would say an ‘Antimicrobial Product’ is something that has the primary function of killing microbes. This is what we supply. The products that our customers make have a function – a chair to sit on, a computer mouse to control your computer, a water dispenser to dispense hot, cold carbonated water – any antimicrobial property our additive introduces is secondary. From a legal perspective these are known as ‘Treated Articles’. The antimicrobial properties that they possess are additional and there to enhance how the product does what it is designed to do. How do you measure this? If the antimicrobial additive was removed the primary purpose would remain unchanged – if it does, change, well that is a whole new blog story.
This distinction is important, not only from a regulatory perspective, but also when you consider your expectations of the product that you are looking to buy ad how it is to be used.
Are all antimicrobial products the same?
Put simply, no. There are many different kinds of antimicrobials each with a specific function which are formulated to suit the applications to which they are put. Here are some examples:
Everyone who has seen a GP about an illness will recognise the term ‘antibiotic’, and identify it as a form of medicine you take to treat illness caused by bacteria. What you may not realise, is that an antibiotic is a type of antimicrobial.
Another example of an antimicrobial is the antibacterial soap found in most public washrooms or the cleaning chemicals used to keep that washroom hygienically clean. They are often formulated to be active against microbes or to put it more bluntly, kill them upon contact. However, whilst these antimicrobials may perform a similar function, they are all very different to the technologies BioCote® supply. If you were to add a penicillin to plastics when moulding a water bottle, it is unlikely to deliver any kind of hygienic protection and may in fact have a detrimental effect upon the appearance or long term performance of the bottle itself.
Just as antibiotics have a specific function, so does BioCote® antimicrobial technology. Our additives are formulated to be introduced to materials, such as plastic, fabric, or coatings during the manufacture. Not only are they designed to be compatible with the manufacturing process employed, but also to give that product or material ‘built-in’ antimicrobial properties. This is protection against microbes – that includes bacteria, mould and specific viruses. The protection is permanent and will certainly last the expected functional lifetime of the product – it may even extend it. Whilst there are many different types of active ingredient on the market they were not all created equal and whilst all, if used appropriately, should deliver antimicrobial protection when a product is first produced, some begin to underperform with time as the property giving ingredient degrades, wears out or worse leaves the product.
When choosing an antimicrobial solutions provider it is important to take factors such as these into account; not all antimicrobial ingredients are the same and choosing the wrong solutions provider can be catastrophic in you antimicrobial venture.
How do you measure whether a product has antimicrobial properties or not?
The best measure of whether a product demonstrates antimicrobial properties or not is to test it, but how, where and which test? Get any of these wrong and you risk a misleading result. A misleading result may mean you under claim the antimicrobial performance of your product, or worse you make claims that you cannot back-up with credible data – this could lead to significant bad press, even financial sanctions.
When selecting a test house, look out for external accreditations from the likes of UKAS. The test house should be able to provide advice regarding the best test to use as there are many and the wrong test risks the wrong result. Selecting the appropriate method is fundamental to testing success, if you are testing a polymer or impermeable material use ISO 22196:2011, however use this method to test a fabric or similar permeable surface and you will get a fantastic, but entirely misleading result. Why? Because the bacteria will have died due to dehydration rather than any antimicrobial effect the treated material is exerting on them. BioCote’s understanding of how to test products based on our near 25 year knowledge means that the test data we provide our customers is credible. It also sees the services our laboratory provide are now being utilised by non-BioCote® customers around the world for projects as diverse as environmental studies and assessment of detergent performance.
How antimicrobial does a product need to be to be considered antimicrobial?
When a product is described as having antimicrobial properties it could be assumed this means reductions in the region of 99.9%, this is the magical figure often quoted in the commercials we are bombarded by. However, whilst there are many tests to measure antimicrobial performance, it is rare that the test method used sets a performance requirement that a product must achieve for it to be described thus. This means if a product reduces the presence of bacteria by just a single percentage point it can be described and marketed as Antimicrobial. Shocking right?
BioCote® believe that this isn’t acceptable, if a product is marketed as having antimicrobial properties it really should perform and perform credibly. How else can we expect end users to take such products seriously? This is why we require all of our customers when testing their products, to achieve above our global minimum performance standard before taking their product to market. No other antimicrobial additive supplier makes this type of potentially business limiting demand of their customers. We wonder why not? That’s why the BioCote® trademark is recognised around the world as a sign of superior antimicrobial quality.
Does antimicrobial mean forever?
Some antimicrobials, such as cleaning chemicals, are designed to have an immediate effect. A speedy killing action however is typically short lived and as soon as a surface upon which they have been used on is dry, the antimicrobial effect ceases and the cleaned surface is susceptible to re-contamination.
Whilst the effect is temporary, the product delivers what is expected of it. But what if you purchased a product, like a pair of socks that promised protection against the kind of bacteria that cause foot odour and you found that protection was also in fact only short lived? We don’t mean for minutes after first putting them on, but for a limited number of washes meaning that potentially after the first 4 or 5 times you wear them any antimicrobial properties they may have contained have been literally washed away. Is that acceptable? Would we buy permanent markers that aren’t in fact permanent or long-life batteries that don’t actually deliver? At BioCote® we believe if a product is marketed as having antimicrobial properties it absolutely should do, and not only when first purchased but for its expected functional lifetime – if not this should be made clear.
BioCote® technology does not wash off, wear away, degrade or run out of steam. A product that contains our technology remains antimicrobial for its expected lifetime. That is how it should be and anything less is unacceptable.
It is apparent that the word antimicrobial can mean many things, exactly what is dependent upon the application or situation in which it is used. Our advice? Always read the label and don’t presume the term means what you think it does. Alternatively, look out for the BioCote® logo, then you can trust the product – whatever it is and wherever it is being sold in the world will deliver antimicrobial performance you can rely on. That is our promise to you, and that is what antimicrobial means to us.
For more information, contact a member of the BioCote® team on +44 (0) 2477 712 489 or message us.