Disinfectant Wipes Expose People to Dangerous Chemicals: Study

A couple of years ago we published a warning from a chemical scientist about the penchant the U.S. and other countries had developed for disinfectant wipes.  The obsession to routinely wipe every surface clean with the wipes stemmed from the COVID pandemic. But the catch was (and scientists knew this at the time) those wipes did nothing to protect people from COVID.  But what those disinfectant wipes were doing was exposing millions and millions of people to a dangerous chemical group – quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as QACs, or “quats”.  Quats are common components in popular disinfectant wipes and sprays, especially those that claim to “kill 99.9% of germs”.


Study overview

Researchers conducted an extensive scientific review of the fast-growing body of quat studies that point to several main issues: the chemicals are linked to serious health problems, they contribute to antimicrobial resistance, they pollute the environment and they are not particularly effective.  The scientific team was made up of researchers from academia, government agencies and non-governmental organizations and their findings highlight quats’ risks and calls on regulators to eliminate the chemicals for non-essential uses.

What is up with these quats/QAC chemicals?

QACs are a class of hundreds of chemicals also used in paints, pesticides, hand sanitizers, personal care products and more. Among other health issues, recent research has linked them to metabolic disruption, asthma, infertility, birth defects, skin disorders and other diseases.

The main exposure is through disinfectants, and most Americans are thought to have some level of these toxic chemicals in their blood.  Humans can end up with quats in their bodies through several routes. The chemicals can be absorbed through your skin or orally ingested after you touch a disinfectant wipe, or when the chemicals stick around on surfaces after the use of disinfectants. Inhalation is also a risk, especially with spray disinfectants, and the chemicals are also known to attach to dust and go airborne.

And there is even more bad news: these quats chemicals are persistent and thought to be bioaccumulative, meaning they accumulate in human bodies and the environment. And there is a high likelihood that quats chemicals probably contribute to the creation of superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant pathogens.


And they don’t even work against viruses like Covid

Scientific research has already demonstrated that disinfection with quats often has only a small benefit over plain soap and water when it comes to killing germs–and neither is thought to be needed to stop the transmission of Covid, which happens through the air.


Takeaway on disinfectant wipes

Soap and water is safest for general cleaning purposes, according to scientists studying these chemicals. Disinfectants should generally be reserved for when someone has the stomach flu or other illnesses for which disinfectants are effective–and even then, say experts, they should “not be used in a cavalier way”.



Journal reference: Arnold, W.A., et al. Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: A Chemical Class of Emerging Concern. Environmental Science & Technolology Journal, May 8, 2023.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.2c08244