Cetrimide is an antiseptic agent, meaning it has various antibacterial, antifungal and other antimicrobial properties and can be applied to skin or mucous membranes to avoid or minimize the risk of infection. It is also a surfactant, meaning it functions as a detergent with cleaning properties. As a pharmaceutical ingredient, it is used in various products like sprays, liquids, and creams for a range of purposes, including cleaning burns and wounds, for disinfecting skin before injections or surgery, and in diluted form as a treatment for sore gums. Cetrimide is also used to clean and disinfect surgical instruments. Some shampoos and conditioners, including varieties used to treat seborrhea and psoriasis, also contain this antiseptic as an active ingredient, because of both its antimicrobial and detergent properties.
The antiseptic properties of cetrimide are due to its ability to damage the cell membranes and destroy the cellular structure of many different microorganisms that can cause disease, including many kinds of bacteria, fungi, and various single-celled organisms. However, it is not effective against all bacteria, or against spores, or viruses. It is sometimes mixed with clorhexidin, another antiseptic, when used to disinfect wounds.
Cetrimide is a relatively new antiseptic, and has certain advantages compared to some older types of antiseptics like phenol, also known as carbolic acid, which was commonly used as an antiseptic agent in the form of carbolic soap until the 1970s. For example, unlike phenol, cetrimide is non-toxic when used topically, meaning when it is applied to the skin or mucous membranes, and is also less irritating to skin compared to carbolic acid. Both these properties mean it can be used more frequently with less chance of irritation or other side effects. It also has a residual effect, meaning it keeps protecting the treated area from infection for some time after application.
Disadvantages of using cetrimide as an antiseptic include that it can cause wounds to heal slower, some bacteria can build up a resistance to it, and its effectiveness can be reduced if there is a large amount of pus or other bodily fluids present in the wound. It is also not recommended for use in body cavity wounds. This antiseptic has few side effects when used as directed, but will cause nausea and vomiting if ingested. In rare cases, cetrimide can cause skin rash. Such irritation can also happen in rare cases when using a cetrimide shampoo, and one should discontinue use immediately if this occurs.