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Disinfectant Overkill: What are “Quats” and why are they a problem?

quats in disinfectant wipes

What are “Quats” and why are they a problem?

UPDATE 3/27/2020: Do you have questions about the use of disinfectants and COVID-19? Please take a look at this webinar that addresses cleaning products, including disinfectants, quats, safer and effective options in preventing the spread of COVID-19, health concerns, & more.

For additional information and links to resources & studies referenced in this webinar, click here.

Alex Scranton
Director of Science and Research

For additional resources, sample letters to public spaces/schools, fact sheets, and actions to help eliminate quats from products and public spaces once and for all, CLICK HERE!

Quats (quaternary ammonium compounds) are potent disinfectant chemicals commonly found in disinfectant wipes, sprays and other household cleaners that are designed to kill germs. It is often the stuff that allows a product to claim to be antibacterial, as they are certified by the EPA as pesticides.

So what’s the problem?

In most cases, quats are total overkill for your everyday household cleaning needs. Unless you plan on doing some open-heart surgery on your kitchen table, there is no need for quats to sterilize the surfaces in your house. We know from lab testing that quats do effectively kill many kinds of microbes like E. Coli and Staph. Aureus – but there are serious potential side effects that comes along with that power. It’s like killing a housefly with a sledgehammer – there is no question the sledgehammer will be very effective (with a direct hit) but the side effects (the gaping holes in your wall) are pretty unpleasant, not to mention unnecessary. Because while quats do kill germs on surfaces, studies of quat use in households have never been able to show that it makes you or your family any healthier than if you used soap and water. Truly, not a single study has been able to show reduced illness at home from using antibacterial cleaners. (Studies on frequent handwashing with soap and water on the other hand clearly show health benefits.)

So there’s no advantage to quats…but there are several downsides

In addition to harming germs, quats are lung irritants and can contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. They irritate skin too – and can lead to rashes. (This is one reason why packages of antibacterial wipes strongly recommend washing your hands after use.  A factor that really takes the convenience out of using a wipe in the first place!)

In addition, there is emerging science that is showing exposure to quats is harming sperm quality, reducing fertility and resulting in birth defects in mice. We simply do not know yet whether these impacts could occur in humans as well. Lastly, the widespread overuse of quats is creating superbugs – that are resistant both to quats and other antibiotics, which is problematic on so many levels.

The other thing is that quats will linger on a surface long after you have cleaned with them. This means that your exposure (and your kids’ exposure, and your pet’s exposure) continues every time you touch that countertop. In the mice experiments I mentioned above, it took months of re-sanitizing the animal cages that had originally been cleaned with quats until the mice were reproducing normally again. Yikes.  Again there is a reason that disinfectant wipes with quats also recommend against using them on any food-contact surfaces (like cutting boards, plates or cutlery, high chair trays etc.) because these potent chemicals can contaminate the food they come into contact with, even well after cleaning is done.

Avoiding quats at home

The advantage is that you can easily avoid quats in the products you use at home. Look for cleaning products that do NOT advertise as “antibacterial”. Or if they do – check the front label which is required to list the “active ingredients” and avoid products which contain ingredients that look like this:

  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Benzethonium chloride
  • Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides (C12-16)
  • Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (C14 60%, C16 30%, C12 5%, C18 5%)
  • Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride (C12-14)
  • Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chlorides (C12-18)
  • Didecyldimethylammonium chloride
  • Dioctyldimethylammonium chloride

Avoiding quats in public can be a lot harder – but you can share this information or our fact sheet on quats to help get quats out of schools (like Janna Said did in her children’s school), gyms and other public places.

To a healthier home!!

#quitquats

15 Responses

  1. Frank R Car

    So where are the citations? We did not get rid of all the nasties that used to kill people with just hand washing which is important of course, but we have come a long way to make the world a safer place with SCIENCE and not fear mongering. You do the public a disservice by not providing ALL the information.I’m sure this comment will be removed, oh well.

  2. Dan McCreedy

    As a QA director for a small food manufacturer I am concerned about the possible problems associated with the use of quats in manufacturing of food. We recently switched from bleach based sanitizing to what I believed was the more “modern” quaternary ammonium. In reading your article the concern seems to be based on the household use of quat, and says nothing about concerns for its use in large scale food manufacturing. I am looking for definitive information that might help me decide which way to go with this concern.

  3. Nate

    I’m dealing with a skin condition on my hands that I believe to be triggered by the spray my local gym is using to sanitize equipment. It’s ammonium chloride based and my rash is generally on my hands. I just had a scratch test and a biopsy and a patch test done and they found a possible allergic reaction to sodium disulphite. I have been having almost migraine headaches behind my eyes for a couple days at a time. I have almost like blisters on my palms. I also have a lot of peeling and such. I will continue my search and keep you all posted.

  4. Mary

    Dealing with covid 19 should be addressed somewhere in this article. When the stores are out of bleach and other household cleaning supplies as they are now, a quat is certainly a good option.

  5. Elizabeth

    Hi Mary — this article is from 2018 – and quats are still very much a problem and in fact an increasing one in context of COVID-19. But you’re right – we need to address the context of COVID-19 and the use of quats. We just released a webinar yesterday that addresses the issues of COVID-19, Cleaning Products and Health; please have a look. I’m adding this to the article as well. Thanks for reaching out! https://youtu.be/qCbBaTEkb-0

  6. Jan Curcio

    I was breaking out on my right shoulder, the top of my right arm, and on the right side of my chest. I deduced that it couldn’t be from a food allergy, or something i wore since the breakouts would be on both sides of my body. Also, i had pain in my right wrist and shoulder. I believe it is all due to using sanitizing wipes, with my right hand only, and i was using a lot of them for my sick cat wipeups and general house cleaning. After not using them for the past week all symptoms are gone. I hope that this helps someone, Jan

  7. Shayne

    Hello,

    I am a mum of 2 young children, before Covid-19 I was mainly only using non toxic cleaners such as METHOD. I did use bleach in toilet.
    Since Covid-19 i’ve been using Dettol products hoping they were safer than bleach but i’ve seen now that they include the Quats you mention. I don’t like using them around my children and worry about them touching the surfaces after use and inhaling if using in same room.
    I don’t feel great after using: slight headaches and my hands are very dry and even bleed a little where skin is dry after disinfecting groceries with dettol wipes.
    I really want to safely disinfect my house against potential covid 19 and so far from my research it seems only bleach or dettol can do that Dettol specifically claims against a previous corona virus.
    But i’m terrified of mixing products. It says don’t use with detergents but I have to clean first because disinfectants don’t clean.
    I’m using harpic in toilet now rather than bleach to remove limescale and kill germs but i worry about wiping around the toilet soon after with dettol: potential mix of chemicals .
    These issues have been keeping me up for hours and causing me huge mental stress.
    I spend hours researching different products.
    The other thing is I would love an all round product that cleans and disinfects and kills covid 19 in one go. D10 seems to be able to do that but i don’t want to have to wear protective clothing to clean my house!!!
    Dettol cleaning spray and other products like bleach and Zoflora say don’t use on polished wood, painted surfaces or varnished so this makes me use different products and then makes me scared of mixing the products using one after the other.

    So far my experience with disinfectant is that it feels toxic to me and it doesn’t clean so i have to clean first with for example Method and then disinfect not often with dettol

    Since you’ve said that there’s no evidence that disinfectants made people in homes any less sick than using soap and water and that soap breaks up covid 19. I think i’m just going to use soap and water to clean everything and hope that it’s breaking the virus too.

    How would you disinfect cloths and sponges without a disinfectant?

    Thanks
    Shayne Boddy

  8. Lery

    Hello my concern is that with cov 19 the government is spraying all street in my neighborhood with quaternary ammonium. This product can kill plant and bird?, because some of my plants start showing signs of dryness and I find 2 dead bird in my backyard.
    Thank

  9. Judy Toby

    Thank you very much for more informative helpful webinaire. Real help our family a lot. Just the convenience of what we are doing is good.
    Question: in using isopropyl alcohol 91% – can i add water to it in spray bottle. Would it still be effective. Do you recommend a mix ratio. Also a hydrogen peroxide 3% mix.

    Would like to use it after shopping (grocery store etc) to spray on product i bought before bring into my car to take home. I where mask and gloves while shopping but everyone does not. I have seem shoppers touch face, nose, sneeze etc. and pick up products read labels put back on shelf.
    Thank you Judy

  10. Elizabeth

    Hi Fiorella — please take a look here for more information (https://www.womensvoices.org/2020/03/30/safer-disinfecting-at-home-in-the-times-of-coronavirus/). The short answer is safer disinfectants include products with the following active ingredients:

    alcohol/ethanol/isopropanol
    hydrogen peroxide
    lactic acid
    citric acid and
    thymol

    This is also an excellent resource from our friends at Beyond Pesticides: https://beyondpesticides.org/programs/antibacterials/disinfectants-and-sanitizers

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