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

What are quaternary ammonium compounds or “QUATs”?

Quaternary ammonium compounds or “QUATs” are chemicals that are used in a variety of different personal care products from spermicidal jellies to disinfectants. They are used as conditioning agents to give skin and hair a smooth feel. They make clothes feel softer after being washed so they’re also a common ingredient in fabric softeners [1]. The foodservice industry uses QUATs as a disinfectant.

What are quats in?

QUATs can be found in shampoos, toilet cleaners, hand soap, shaving cream, baby wipes, body wash, sunscreens, moisturizers, disinfectant sprays, liquid fabric softeners, anti-cling dryer sheets, disinfectants, and spermicidal jellies [1] [3].

How to tell if a product has quats

These are listed as 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” [2].

Risks associated with quats

Quats are formaldehyde releasing toxic chemicals that have been associate with multiple health risks [5] including:

  • Allergies & irritation (skin, eye, lung)
  • Contact dermatitis – Studies estimate that between 13% and 34% of contact dermatitis cases may be linked to quats.
  • Asthma
  • Fertility Issues
  • Birth Defects

How to avoid QUATs

Read product labels and avoid products that contain 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)[4]. Also avoid products containing things like “biodegradable fabric softening agents” or “catatonic surfactants”. In cleaning products, where manufacturers aren’t required to list all their ingredients on product labels, choose toxic chemical free alternatives with safe natural ingredients.  In personal care products, do your own research on a product’s ingredients by using a resource such as the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep product database.


[1] Healthy Child Healthy World (2016). Skip the Fabric Softeners. Available online: December 7, 2016.

[2] Healthy Child Healthy World (2015). The Trouble with Disinfecting Wipes. Available online: December 7, 2016.

[3] Women’s Voices for the Earth (2016). Disinfectant Overkill. Available online: December 7, 2016.

[4] Safe Cosmetics.Org. Available online:

[5] Environmental Working Group.

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