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.
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!!