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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!!


31 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


    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?

    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.

  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://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:

    hydrogen peroxide
    lactic acid
    citric acid and

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

  11. Desiree

    Hello I work for a major grocery chain in San Diego and I’m cleaning my register every 10 minutes for 8 hours a day and I’m very concerned about the long term side effects. It’s kayquat II. ECOLAB these are the ingredients. I also have asthma though it’s not severe and daily use of my inhaler is not needed usually. Cleaning with these products are concerning.
    Chemical Name CAS-No. Concentration: (%)
    n-Alkyl (68% C12, 32% C14) dimethyl ethylbenzyl
    ammonium chlorides
    68956-79-6 5
    n-Alkyl (C14, 60%; C16, 30%; C8, 5%; C12, 5%)
    dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride
    68391-01-5 5

  12. Jenny

    So what should u use instead to kill human corona and news flash unless you are raising your own chickens and processing the meat? This stuff is used to hose down every single inch of the processing plant!!!

  13. Sage

    I am a school nurse in an elementary school and just became aware that my district is using quats as their disinfecting chemicals. They are of the opinion that these products, once diluted, are the “least toxic out there.” They believe that once they are dry, there is absolutely no hazard to anyone.
    I would appreciate any information you could give me on the dangers of these chemicals even when dry.
    Thank you.

  14. Mary

    I am a teacher in a school that is using a quats based clearer. I have had 4 times of anaphylaxis to the cleaner. Each anaphylaxis needed hospitalization and meds including epinephrine, steroids, Benadryl and famotidine. I have been on steroids since October 19th when the first anaphylaxis happened. My workplace is fighting my worker’s compensation case even though every time I tried to go back to work, I had anaphylaxis again. I almost died after the 4th anaphylaxis on November 4th. My life has been destroyed by this quats cleaner. Is there anything you can do to help me fight my case? Currently my employer is letting me teach from home using zoom and I purchased a webcam for my school so the students can see and hear me but my employer could stop this at any time. I just want to be able to teach my students without dying! I also don’t want my students exposed to these horrendous pesticides. Please help!!

  15. Anonymous

    How lovely. I believe the restaurant I work in uses quat sanitizer on all the tables, menues, high chairs, and food stands.

    Everybody feeling “safe” in our overreactions yet?

  16. Good Day!

    My name is Wiliam “Fired Up” Lykes from Charlotte, NC. I was doing some research on Quaternary Disinfectants when I came across this Blog. I encourage you all to continue with your crusade to “EDUCATE” others about how harmful certain products are. Unfortunately, because the damage is compounded over a period of time others don’t think them and their families are being affected. Making the decision to remove chemical-based, toxic products from our home is one of the absolute best decisions my wife and I could have made. Not just from the perspective of household cleaning products but also by deciding to change what we eat and how we prepare it. We as a community are institutionalized by our traditional habits so we have to attempt to educate those who are willing to listen.

  17. Cynthia

    The wicks in my humidifier are made with what was told to me was a harmless salt but it’s quaterinary ammonium, so now I’m wondering. I don’t use chemicals, never have. I avoid docs, I eat organically, didn’t even have the internet until I needed it to work from home. Once that’s done, I’m canceling that too. Family thinks I take it too far, after reading all that I have over the many years I’ve been interested, it’s hard not to wonder about so many things. Any thoughts about humidifier wicks? Thank you.

  18. Paz Q

    This is well written and informative. The harmful associated risks of using these synthesized compounds should be better understood by the general public, which is why I’ll be sharing. Thank you Alex.

    Its agitating to read some of these comments to first hand accounts of how the impacts are so very prominent. Thinking of those that are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis gives me unease.

  19. Sidney

    Hi! After being made aware of QACs I started doing some investigative work at my children’s school. Although they try to be “green“ some of the products used or concerning me. Several using DDAC products. The one they primarily use can be bought at Home Depot under the name BIOSQUE. I spoke with the representative who told me .23% of the product is made from Thymol (A chemical derivative of thyme. However, he was unable to give me any of the other 99+ percent of ingredients because they were “proprietary“ ingredients. I always believe, people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing. The fact that they are able to get away with not disclosing this information is very concerning to me especially after he told me the proprietary ingredients were under the heading surfactants (of which quads and quads or in that category). If anyone is familiar with this product or can you give me any guidance I need to make a decision by tomorrow whether or not to send them back to school or to keep them home the rest of the year. Any and all information would be helpful. Thx!

  20. Jean

    I became very ill with “industrial asthma” when my employer started using a disinfectant full of quats. I filed a WSIB claim. Seven other women at work have also had issues. I have read many health and safety reports about the harmful effect of quats. Why has there been no demand to have them banned.

  21. MJ

    I work in a drug store and since June or July/20 we have been sanitizing the carts and baskets with a particular quat sanitizer.. We were not given any info on this product. In December I started getting horrible what seemed like chemical burns on my face. It took me awhile to figure out what was causing it but I knew it was something at work because I was fine at home. The last reaction I had sent me to the emergency dept because my face really started swelling up. I figured it was this spray we were using. Come to find out, other coworkers were getting rashes and now one of my coworkers is having issues with her eyes. Her eye doctor says it’s like she has a band of sandpaper across her eyes and can’t figure out why because she has never seen anything like it before. I don’t touch this sanitizer anymore and I’ve had no reactions. Most of my coworkers spray this stuff on the carts and walk through the mist. My work won’t get rid of it but just told us to wear gloves when we use it. That doesn’t really solve the issue.

  22. sonjia m carter

    PLEASE encourage this product to be banned from the WORLD. I had it spill on me full strength 20 years go. I began to feel pain about 8 years after the spill. Then I got kidney cancer. I am the first person in my family to get cancer. I had to have my kidney removed. I was injured so badly by this chemical I had to be admitted to the burn unit. IT is NOT SAFE !! PLEASE LISTEN TO ME please. It needs to be taken off the market. I am suffering so much My hands and feet don’t work now and It has ruined my life . PLEASE Encourage this product to be banned from the market.

  23. Melissa

    I have found a company that has a safe and effective epa registered botanical disinfectant. I don’t figure its okay to advertise a specific company on here though. I’m eager to get the word out about the harm quats do. It saddens me that due to covid there’s been an increase in their use in both homes and schools! People were told to stay home and disinfect more, which actually caused more harm to their lungs!

  24. Baking soda and vinegar work wonders. For every quat agent used, traces of the agent are passed through to our tap water, food, and ultimately bloodstream resulting in damage to the nervous system. There is not
    a safe way to use these chemicals. The T.V is bombarded with lawsuits linking Para”Quat” with Parkinsons disease. Even if we can never be guarded from exposure we can boycott the use of the agents to minimize exposure. An infomercial is the cause of my research that has lead me here, as I’ve never been aware of these chemicals and there effects on the nervous system. I can only compare quats to lead exposure and asbestos exposure, we can’t safeguard as “it” is everywhere, but we can be aware and inform the next person of the sever danger of common everyday exposures. Sadly imagine how our children’s health is in jeopardy from the ignorance of our FDA’s leading to negligence by rolling the dice with our health for the sake of a dollar found in finding the next popular combination of cleaning agents because soap, baking soda, and vinegar are already on the market scarcely combined and just as effective.
    Try a non toxic home made combination like baking soda and vinegar. Some inexpensive and simple ingredients will save our families and our sanity.
    P.S. Anything starting or ending with Quat is a pesticide. I just learned that.Even if 100% diluted there is no safe way to properly dispose of this unless you contact the emergency numbers on the back of the bottle for proper instruction.
    Take care

  25. sm carter

    People have no clue as to how dangerous these chemical are. Not only to people but pets. I was seriously burned with this and was in the burn unit with 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 1/3 of my body. 8 Years later I got cancer of the kidneys I am not a drinker and I am the first person in my family to have cancer. I know how i got it it was the chemical quat 256 that fell on top of me that burned me that caused the cancer. This stuff is so dangerous it should be off the market and people should be paid for what they have had to go through because of it. Get this off the market and hold these companies accountable for what they have done to people.

  26. Cindy

    My coworker and I were accidentally poisoned by quats while cleaning mold off school buses. Two years later with memory and cognitive decline, multiple autoimmune diseases, lung disease, liver disease, and fibromyalgia, life will never be the same. Some issues (Mac lung disease) from the mold and bacteria , but most issues from Quats.
    Beware of their dangers and trust me it’s not worth it.

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