Use of the ‘ex vivo’ test to study long-term bacterial survival on human skin and their sensitivity to antisepsis


Dr J.-Y. Maillard, School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, University of Brighton, Cockcroft Building, Moulsecoomb, Brighton BN2 4GJ, UK (e-mail:


Aims:  To determine bacterial survival on human skin and their sensitivity to antisepsis.

Methods and Results:  An ‘ex vivo’ protocol which uses human skin samples placed into diffusion cells, and electron microscopy (EM), were used to study the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa inoculated onto skin samples over a 46-h incubation period at 32°C. Concurrently variation in skin pH was evaluated at different time intervals during this period. In addition the antimicrobial activity of three antiseptics against the incubated micro-organisms was assessed quantitatively with the ‘ex vivo’ test, while their detrimental effects against bacteria were observed by EM. All three bacteria were still present in high number after 46 h inoculation on skin, although the concentration of E. coli and S. aureus were reduced by 2·74 and 1·58 log10 reduction, respectively, over this period of time. Electron micrographs showed clear evidence of cell division and some bacteria appeared to be embedded into the skin layers. The antiseptics tested had some antibacterial activity against bacteria incubated on skin for 3 and 10 h, and EM evidence showed some morphological damages including cellular blebbing and the presence of fibrillar material around the cells. All micro-organisms had an acidifying effect on skin samples.

Conclusions:  Here, it was shown that bacterial pathogens can survive and grow when incubated on human skin. In addition, it is possible that they can penetrate the stratum corneum, which can provide some protection against antisepsis.

Significance and Impact of the Study:  The apparent low bactericidal activity of biocides attributed in part to bacterial protection from skin layers is particularly important to assess in order to ensure antisepsis efficacy.