You've cut your hand or your child has scraped her knee. These are acute wounds. Whenever possible, they should be cleaned and treated immediately with an antiseptic to prevent infection. The textbook Pharmacology for Nursing Care includes information about many of the common skin antiseptics. However, if the wound shows signs of infection, please get medical attention right away.
All soap cleans, but antibacterial soap is a mild antiseptic as well as a cleaner. Wash your own hands first. Then wash the entire area of the injury to prevent nearby skin bacteria from contaminating the wound. Rinse liberally with clean water or 0.9 percent sterile saline solution, which is easier on the damaged skin. Always keep a wound clean until you can cover it properly.
Alcohol is a good antiseptic, but damaging to tissues. A 70 percent isopropyl or ethyl alcohol solution will kill germs and is ideal for cleaning around a wound. It will sting if it gets in the wound. Hand sanitizer gels, sprays or wipes may be used in this way also.
Witch hazel has some alcohol content, but not enough to be considered a true antiseptic. It does clean the skin, and according to the Professional's Handbook of Complementary & Alternative Medicines, it helps to stop bleeding and reduce swelling. It can be applied with a cotton ball that remains on the skin as a compress, if desired.
Hydrogen peroxide actually damages tissues and retards healing. It is no longer considered a skin antiseptic, but can be used to help remove debris from deep or dirty wounds. Wash deep or dirty wounds with soap and flush well with water or sterile saline if available. Use peroxide if clean water isn't available. Follow-up with an antiseptic.
Benzethonium chloride is sold under several trade names, including salanine, BZT and diapp. It has been shown to be effective against Staph bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The FDA indicates that benzethonium chloride should be used in limited amounts and is not recommended for antibacterial soaps and body washes.
Benzalkonium chloride wipes may be in your first aid kit. It is the safest product to use around the eyes, but should not be allowed to get in the eyes. There is a risk of becoming allergic to it with prolonged use.
Povidone iodine is a safe and effective antiseptic for almost everyone, but should not be used if there is an allergy to iodine or seafood. It is painted on with a cotton swab or a pre-soaked pad. It is available at drugstores in liquid form as well as swabs or pads. Povidone iodine does tint the skin and can stain fabric.
Chlorhexidine gluconate is considered a safe and highly effective skin antiseptic. It must not be allowed to enter the ears as it can damage hearing. It can otherwise be applied liberally to the wound and surrounding area and allowed to dry on the skin. It has a residual antibacterial action, so new bacteria will not grow in or around the wound for up to six hours. This product is available in several brands and forms at all pharmacies.