Toxic Chemical Glossary:
What are Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: Toxic Chemical Free Living

What are quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats”?

Quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats” are antimicrobial chemicals that are used in a variety of different products ranging from spermicidal jellies, to dishwashing liquids, hand soaps, air fresheners and disinfectants.  They make clothes feel softer after being washed so they’re also a common ingredient in fabric softeners. There are multiple health reasons to avoid using quat-based products.

What are quats in?

Because they are effective germ-killers that are inexpensive to produce, quats can be found in a wide range of products that we use in our homes every day, including shampoos, toilet cleaners, hand soap, shaving cream, baby wipes, body wash, sunscreens, moisturizers, disinfectant sprays, liquid fabric softeners, and anti-cling dryer sheets.

How to tell if a product has quats

The quats category contains several different commonly used ingredients, and some of the most common are benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides, alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride, didecyldimethylammonium chloride, dioctyldimethylammonium chloride, distearyldimonium chloride, variants of hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate, diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride, and are often noted as “biodegradable fabric softening agents” or “catatonic surfactants”.

Risks associated with quats

Quats are formaldehyde releasing toxic chemicals that have been associated with multiple health risks including:

How to avoid QUATs

Read product labels and avoid products that contain alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides, alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride, didecyldimethylammonium chloride, dioctyldimethylammonium chloride, distearyldimonium chloride, hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate, diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, quaternium-15, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, centrimonium bromide, polyquaternium – followed by a number (i.e. polyquaternium-7). Also avoid products containing things like “biodegradable fabric softening agents” or “catatonic surfactants”.

Label reading is tough, and in cleaning products, manufacturers aren’t even required to list all their ingredients on product labels. A great alternative to disinfectants with quats is to choose toxic chemical free alternatives with antimicrobial ingredients like hypochlorous acid.  Hypochlorous acid is so gentle that it’s commonly used as the antimicrobial in eye care, wound healing, and veterinary care products.  In fact, hypochlorous acid is the same substance the immune system produces to fight infection.

In personal care products, a great way to avoid quats is to research a specific product’s ingredients with a resource like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep product database or app.

Wondering about how to protect your home or your business from SARS-CoV-2, the cause of Covid-19, without quats? Almost half of the products on the EPA’s list N, the disinfectants approved for use against Covid-19, contain this category of ingredients. A great option that’s EPA approved for use against Covid-19 is Force of Nature, which uses hypochlorous acid instead. Force of Nature is a small appliance that uses electricity to convert salt, water and vinegar into a multipurpose cleaner and EPA registered disinfectant that kills 99.9% of germs when used as directed. It has no harmful fumes or residues, so you don’t have to worry about rinsing surfaces after you use it. And because you can make it on your countertop, you never have to worry about running out.

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