A comparison of the irritant and allergenic properties of antiseptics

Eur J Dermatol. 2014 Jan-Feb;24(1):3-9. doi: 10.1684/ejd.2013.2198.


Over recent years, interest in the use of antiseptics has been reinforced as these molecules are not concerned by the problem of bacterial resistance. Whereas the in vitro efficacy of antiseptics has been well-studied, much less is known regarding their irritant and allergenic properties. This review provides an update on the comparative irritant and allergenic properties of commonly-used antiseptics in medicine nowadays. All antiseptics have irritant properties, especially when they are misused. Povidone-iodine has an excellent profile in terms of allergenicity. Allergic contact dermatitis is uncommon but is often misdiagnosed by practitioners, who confuse allergy and irritation. Chlorhexidine has been incriminated in some cases of allergic contact dermatitis; it is considered a relatively weak allergen, although it may rarely cause immunological contact urticaria and even life-threatening anaphylaxis. Octenidine is considered a safe and efficient antiseptic when used for superficial skin infections, however, aseptic tissue necrosis and chronic inflammation have been reported following irrigation of penetrating hand wounds. Polihexanide is an uncommon contact allergen as regards irritant and/or allergic contact dermatitis but cases of anaphylaxis have been reported. Considering the data available comparing the irritant and allergenic properties of major antiseptics currently in use, it should be acknowledged that all antiseptics may induce cutaneous side-effects. The present article reviews the most recent safety data that can guide consumers' choice.

Keywords: adaptive immunity; chlorhexidine; hexamidinediisethionate; innate immunity; octenidine; polyhexanide; povidone-iodine; quaternary ammonium compounds; silver dressings; triclosan.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local / adverse effects*
  • Dermatitis, Allergic Contact / etiology*
  • Drug Eruptions / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Povidone-Iodine / adverse effects


  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local
  • Povidone-Iodine