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Experts agree that frequent hand washing is one of the first lines of defense against illness. Along with hand washing, ensuring surfaces that you come into contact are free of germs is another important line of defense against the spread of germs or pathogens (disease causing bacteria, viruses or fungi). High touch surfaces such as door knobs, switches, and shopping cart handles are some places where cleaning may not be enough to ensure that pathogens are not there. When it’s important that germs be killed, you might choose disinfectants and disinfecting cleaners.
The length of time that germs can survive outside the body on surfaces varies greatly. But the suspected range is from a few seconds to 48 hours – depending on the specific pathogen and the type of surface. When killing surface germs is your goal, look for products that are disinfectants, some common disinfectants include Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QACs), commonly referred to as Quats.
Because cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are an important part of keeping you and your family safe, it’s important to also know what ingredients go into these products and to make sure that you’re using them in a safe way.
Quats are a group of chemicals used for a variety of purposes including as preservatives, surfactants, antistatic agents and as active ingredients for disinfectants and sanitizers. For the purposes of this FAQ page, we will be discussing the use of Quats in disinfectants. Quats are highly effective at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and are found in many common disinfectant products.
Quats can be found in commercial and retail products such as disinfectant wipes, disinfectant sprays and liquids, laundry disinfectants and sanitizers, surface cleaners, and certain antiseptic products for hand care (i.e.: antibacterial soaps and some hand sanitizers). Quats are a key ingredient in these trusted products used in household, commercial, medical, food service, food and beverage processing, and institutional sites. There are a variety of Quats in sanitizing and disinfecting products, the most common of which are:
- alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC)
- dodecyl didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride (DDAC)
- hexadecyltrimethylammonium (‘cetrimide’)
- benzalkonium chloride (BAC)
Products containing Quats will likely not use the term QAC or Quat, but instead will list the full name of the active ingredient which often ends in “ammonium chloride.”
Cleaning: This involves removing unwanted contaminants, such as soil, dirt and grease, from a surface, material, or your hands. It’s usually what you’re doing when washing with soap and water. Cleaning along with rinsing and using a cloth or paper towel may remove some germs as well when they’re washed or wiped away.
Sanitizing: When sanitizing, you’re reducing (but not necessarily eliminating) the number of germs on the surface to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes or regulations.
Disinfecting: When disinfecting, on surfaces and objects you’re irreversibly inactivating pathogens (microorganisms that cause infections and disease) including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. For SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, this should be done using one of the products registered by the EPA for this use. For a list of EPA-registered disinfectants that are expected to work on SARS-CoV-2, see EPA’s List N. Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19) or the Center for Biocide Chemistries’ Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)—Fighting Products list, which is a user-friendly list of the EPA approved disinfectants.
Click here to see the EPA definitions of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting.
If your goal is to reduce the spread of pathogens, or germs that cause illness, especially on frequently touched surfaces, then you should clean and disinfect. Clean the surface first to remove dirt, and soil, then disinfect. You can also use a one-step cleaner-disinfectant, a product that contains ingredient(s) to help clean a surface and disinfect it at the same time. Many of the products found on EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19) are one-step cleaner-disinfectants.
For all EPA-registered disinfectants containing Quats, directions for use include a contact time. This is the time that the product must remain on the surface to ensure that the disinfectant will work as intended. To ensure proper use, always check the product label to see how long products will need to remain on the surface before wiping or rinsing. Following the label directions ensures proper disinfection as well as safe use.
After application, the directions for use may instruct to wipe the surface, wash the surface or allow it to dry. For instance, if the surface being disinfected is a food-contact surface, the product’s direction will state that rinsing with water after the contact time has been reached is required. It is also prudent to rinse toys that a child might put in their mouth if a disinfectant has been applied to the toy.
Quats are cationic (positively charged) ions which bind to the negatively charged outer membranes of germs; breaking down the membrane resulting in the killing or inactivation of those germs.
Quat containing formulations are effective against a wide range of bacteria, virus and fungi, including many pathogens of concern found in everyday settings from our homes, schools, and work to hospitals and food service establishments. Effectiveness is formula specific, so it’s important to always read product labels.
Products containing Quats are safe and effective when used as directed. These products have been reviewed and registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When picking a product for disinfecting, choose a product that is labelled for your intended use (such as in the home) and states that it can be used on the surface you want to disinfect. Be sure to read and follow all of the label directions. Those instructions are there to ensure that your surfaces are disinfected and to make sure that you’re using the product in a safe way. For example; a product labelled as a hand sanitizer should never be used to sanitize a surface, and surface cleaners and disinfectants should never be used on or in the body.
When it comes to how often should you disinfect, it is up to your discretion. Generally, high touch surfaces such as door knobs, car keys, handles, countertops, etc., should be cleaned and disinfected more often than less frequently touched surfaces.
Disinfecting products, including those with Quats are highly regulated and evaluated by the EPA and FDA, as well as many international authorities such as the European Commission. For products containing Quats to make it to the market, they must undergo a high level of rigorous testing in order to determine the impacts they may have on human health and the environment. Products can only be registered if data show that the intended uses (as described on the product labels) are safe when used as directed.
As with all cleaning products, Quat-based disinfectant cleaners should only be used according to the directions on the label. Such products should NEVER be ingested or injected.
If you are experiencing any issues due to an accidental spill on your skin, eye exposure, inhalation or ingestion, read the First Aid instructions on the product label and if necessary, contact your local poison control center or 911.
In the U.S., surface disinfectant and sanitizer products, including wipes, liquids, and sprays are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Hand hygiene products, including antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
An active ingredient is the chemical in a product that is doing the “job” the product says it does, such as disinfection. All disinfection active ingredients in cleaning products must go through extensive Agency review. For that review, the EPA requires a wide variety of scientific data for every active ingredient (such as Quats) in disinfecting products. This includes acute (short term) and chronic (long term) studies on how it may affect people when it is used. The data that is gathered includes information on skin, eye, and inhalation toxicity and irritation, as well as oral toxicity. Numerous studies are also required on what happens to Quats when “released” in the environment and whether they adversely affect aquatic and terrestrial life.
The EPA’s process for approval of surface disinfectants is one of the most data-intensive regulatory system in the US. To register a chemical for disinfectant use, EPA generally requires more than 20 types of toxicological data involving potentially more than 30 individual toxicological studies to ensure the disinfectant poses no unreasonable acute or long-term risk to humans of all ages.
Hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps are regulated by the FDA as Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs through a regulatory system under the Monograph system. In these Monographs, FDA details the safety and efficacy studies needed for active ingredients (such as Quats) to be determined Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective (GRASE).
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are cleaning and disinfecting more than ever, which raises the question… “is there such thing as cleaning too much?” There is no question that practicing good hygiene is our best defense against SARS-CoV-2, in addition to other safety measures like wearing masks, social distancing, and cleaning and disinfecting. Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices (especially high touch surfaces) is an important part of a holistic strategy to help reduce the spread of germs including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It’s also a good idea to practice smart disinfection and a have a plan for using disinfectants efficiently and effectively, focusing on when and where they are needed most. There’s a time and place for cleaning, and a time and place for disinfection, and doing the right amount of each can help safeguard public health. Depending on the type of location or space and how people are using it, some areas might require cleaning only, while others may need both cleaning and disinfection.
Certain Quat-based disinfectants are effective against SARS-CoV-2. EPA List N. Disinfectants against Coronavirus (COVID-19) includes many Quat-based disinfectants that can be used against SARS-CoV-2. The criteria for inclusion on this list include having been tested against SARS-CoV-2 or having demonstrated efficacy against a harder to kill virus, or a human coronavirus that is similar to SARS-CoV-2.
Are there any differences between EPA’s List N and the Center for Biocide’s Chemistries’ (CBC) COVID-Fighting Product list?
The list maintained by EPA and the list managed by CBC are quite similar and relatively consistent with one another. You will find a greater number of products on the CBC list because that list identifies products by marketed and brand names while EPA does not.
EPA’s List N tool helps you find and learn more about cleaners that are proven effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus (AKA Novel Coronavirus) which causes the disease COVID-19. You can use this tool in two main ways:
- To see if a cleaning product that you already have can kill SARS-CoV-2, you can search the CBC List or EPA’s List N by searching the EPA Registration number (found on the product label). If the product shows up, on one of these lists, you can feel confident that it will be effective against the Coronavirus.
- You can find which products you may want to get that are effective against SARS-CoV2. You can find a product that is best for you by searching for any of the following criteria:
- Active Ingredient (the registered ingredient that is effective versus SARS-CoV-2)
- Use Sites (where you’re going to use this such as a Healthcare Facility, or at Home)
- Surface Types (such as porous, non-porous or a surface that will come in contact with food)
- Contact Time (how long the product needs to remain on the surface to work)
- You can also use a keyword search to search by brand name, type of cleaner, and more.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/quaternary-ammonium-compounds
Assessment of ecological hazards and environmental fate of disinfectant quaternary ammonium compounds: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147651320309556
Methodological evaluation of human research on asthmagenicity and occupational cleaning: a case study of quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) https://aacijournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13223-019-0384-8
Human health hazard assessment of quaternary ammonium compounds: Didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and alkyl (C12-C16) dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230020301434?via%3Dihub