Nature’s Way: Antimicrobial Materials

antimicrobial surfaces

By Veronica Givone | Managing Director, Hospitality

The use of antimicrobial materials in public venues is attracting increased interest as the management of infectious diseases remains top of mind. An impressive array of antimicrobial options used in healthcare settings for years can or have been adapted for use in communal spaces such as hotels and retail environments.  While the appeal of such materials is obvious, many in the scientific community have concerns that an over-reliance of antimicrobials will lead to increased resistance.

To ensure that solutions are cost-effective, design teams should prioritize the identification of at-risk, priority areas, which could include lobby and amenity spaces, guest rooms, restrooms, etc. However, there are other considerations. Antimicrobial materials are often considered unsustainable because by nature they negatively affect other organisms. And beware: many products that claim to be antimicrobial are actually impregnated with chemical pesticides or biocides that can jeopardize the health of a population by migrating into wastewater systems as well as the environment, with ecological implications.

On the positive side, using materials that naturally inhibit bacterial growth and are devoid of additives can achieve the same efficacious results without exposing occupants to the risk of pesticides and their bio-accumulative toxicity.

Making smart choices about how, if, and where to use antimicrobials is key. Here are a few possible choices.

Silver and Copper

Silver and copper have a long history as antimicrobials, evidenced by Greek, Egyptian, and Roman accounts from as far back as 2200 BC. Both metals were used to store and treat drinking water and to make antiseptic salves. The antimicrobial action of these elements takes an iconic form and can act in multiple ways. Silver is typically applied by adding silver ions to a carrier material, such as clay, which in turn is added to a base material. Copper is used in both its raw metallic form and as an oxide added to base materials. Copper, as well as its alloys (brass, bronze, etc.), is often applied to smaller objects, including faucets, handles, and pans, and has the ability to eliminate 99.9 percent of bacteria from its surface in less than two hours. Often it is adopted in hospitality and residential developments, and cost can vary depending upon the application.

During the mid-19th century cholera outbreak, scientists discovered the antimicrobial properties of copper. 

Botanical-Based Extracts

Many essential oils found in plants possess some level of antimicrobial action. Studies show that they attack microbes by making cell membranes permeable. Bay, cinnamon, clove and thyme are the most potent types. The use of extracts in consumable products, for instance cleaners and wipes, is well established.

Surface Topography and Films

Certain surface topographies have been borrowed from nature as nonchemical antimicrobials. One example is a surface comprised of millions of microscopic diamond-shaped patterns arranged into a distinct texture based on natural sharkskin. Instead of killing microbes, this surface creates an inhospitable environment that inhibits microbe growth.

Another antimicrobial formula taken from nature bonds to a clean surface; when viruses and bacteria land on the protected surface, their cellular structure is ruptured (not poisoned) and becomes defunct.

Porcelain Stoneware

This material features a compact surface that won’t trap mites, mold, and other irritating substances. It is impermeable, resistant to stains, and accepts even the most aggressive chemical detergents. For these reasons it is often used in spaces that require high levels of hygiene.

Antibacterial Ceramics and technology

Ceramic material is naturally non-toxic, and the heating process involved in creating these surfaces (over 1,200 degrees Celsius) eliminates virtually all harmful biological residue. When the glaze is imbued with antibacterial additives, it can provide continuous protection against microbial reproduction and growth throughout the lifetime of the ceramic surface.

For products such as antimicrobial ceramic tiles, the use of titanium dioxide fortified with silver fights off all kinds of bacteria, including those that are antibiotic-resistant. This coating also gives ceramics self-cleaning properties, destroys odours, and kills bacteria.


Linoleum is made from all-natural biodegradable materials and typically lasts between 20 and 40 years. It is stain resistant, fire retardant, antimicrobial, and hypoallergenic. Research has found that the flooring, invented more than 100 years ago, has natural bacteria-killing properties. The effect is thought to be due to the antibacterial properties in the linseed oil used to make the lino.

Clay Wall Plasters

These wall plasters passively regulate the humidity of an indoor environment, helping to maintain an optimum humidity level between 30 and 70 percent (the Goldilocks zone), and they minimize mold and fungal growth. They also absorb odors, making them a great choice for the restaurant industry. More expensive than most plaster and gaining in popularity for residential and hospitality use, they have yet to make an impression on commercial and workplace environments.

Microbicide Wall Paint 

Antimicrobial paint is a surface covering, such as a decorative paint,  that uses an active ingredient that is effective against microbial growth and the nesting of microorganisms harmful to our health.

Antimicrobial Fabrics and Wallpaper

Antibacterial or antimicrobial wallpaper has been designed for tough environments that receive a lot of footfall in commercial establishments such as healthcare facilities. While antibacterial wallpaper prevents the development of bacteria, antimicrobial wallpaper stops bacteria, mold and mildew that breed in moisture and spread .

Antimicrobial fabrics are found to be effective at killing bacteria and neutralizing viruses. These ionized fabrics are produced by mixing silver into natural or synthetic fabric.

Antimicrobial additives for textiles are selected based on the fiber type, processing conditions and the types of protection needed, such as antibacterial and/or antifungal activity.


The challenge that manufacturers now face as they further develop these technologies is in discovering ways to inhibit bacterial growth naturally or without additional additives. It’s important to note that these solutions will never take the place of stalwarts like regular cleaning and hand washing, but can have an important role in restoring user confidence in the spaces they will inhabit. With many options already available and an increasing interest in antimicrobial materials, more intriguing applications are sure to soon appear on the market.

Disclaimer: IA does not and cannot approve, or endorse the material(s) or product(s) described herein, or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in such material(s) or product(s). Nothing contained in our documents shall be deemed or construed as an approval, endorsement, or recommendation by IA in any way. 

Veronica Givone

Managing Director, Hospitality

Veronica comes to IA with a wealth of experience in the hospitality sector garnered over 20 years working across Europe and North America. She studied at the Milan Polytechnic Faculty of Architecture, graduating in 2004 in Interior Design at the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED). Interested in sustainable solutions, her experience has given her the opportunity to work with brands such as Curio by Hilton, JW Marriott, Le Meridien, and more. 

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