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.

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!!


7 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

Leave a Reply

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons