Silver: A Natural Antimicrobial
Humans have revered silver as a natural healing metal and preservative for thousands of years.
As early as 1200 BC, the ancient Phoenicians stored water in silver bottles to prevent spoilage from microbes. By 500 BC, Greeks and Romans routinely used silver vessels for water purification. In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, noted the healing benefits and anti-disease properties of silver. As they trekked westward, 19th century American pioneers used silver to keep their water safe and prevent common ailments such as dysentery, colds, and flu. They also used silver dollars in their milk containers to slow bacterial growth. The 1800s also saw silver used directly for medicinal purposes—as silver sutures for surgical wounds, as a silver nitrate solution to eliminate blindness in newborns, and to treat typhoid and anthrax. Before the onset of antibiotics, silver compounds were used to prevent infection during World War I. During the 1920s, over 3 million prescriptions were written annually for medicinal silver.
Silver’s impressive history continues today. Because of its unique combination of efficacy and low-toxicity, silver is routinely used in neonatal eye drops to prevent eye infection. It is the preferred antimicrobial in wound care because of its ability to improve healing without promoting antibiotic resistance. Silver sulfadiazine is the most popular treatment for burns in U.S. burn centers. Outside the health care sector, you will find silver in surfaces such as cutting boards and table tops to protect against food contamination, in sports and military clothing to reduce bacteria-causing odors, and in water purification filters used by international airlines and NASA. Silver is likewise found in homes to help sanitize swimming pools without the harsh effects of chlorine.
Technical advances in chemistry and materials engineering allow silver to be integrated into a larger number of materials—including plastics, coatings, and foams as well as natural and synthetic fibers. The right silver solution can also provides more durable antimicrobial protection against stain and odor-causing bacteria, often for the life of the product.